In the photo “Meeting God” (2008), a rosy-cheeked postulant, her head covered in a white habit, sits in profile with her eyes cast toward heaven. Avoiding some of the usual clichés, photographer Toni Greaves fills much of the frame with the humble wood paneling of a small, spare monastery bedroom — not with a cathedral’s arches, pews and stained glass.
This photo, like the others in Greaves’s first monograph, Radical Love (Chronicle Books, 2015), gives an insider’s view of cloistered monastery life. For seven years, Greaves regularly visited Dominican nuns at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, New Jersey. There, she followed the youngest of its 20-some residents, Sister Lauren, through her daily life and down her spiritual path — from her first weeks in the monastery at age 21, to her clothing ceremony at 22 when she took the holy name of Sister Maria Teresa of the Sacred Heart, to her vows and final commitment at age 28. We see Sister Lauren and her fellow nuns fingering rosaries and holding prayer books, but Greaves also shows them washing dishes, folding socks and playing guitars.
Radical Love joins Greaves’s many other photodocumentary projects. She has photographed women in Southern Afghanistan schools, for Mercy Corps; women giving birth in cowsheds in Nepal, for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and boys in ritesof- passage ceremonies in Northern Kenya, where she spent six weeks with the Samburu tribe, for a personal project. Then there is her ongoing personal project, “Furries,” documenting people who feel truest to themselves when dressed up as animals.
Born and raised in Australia, Greaves now lives in Portland, Oregon. Since 2008, she has photographed for commercial clients such as Charles Schwab Corporation, Cleveland Clinic, Johnson & Johnson, Riot Games and Jive Software; and editorial clients such as Le Monde, Marie Claire, TIME, Real Simple and The New York Times Magazine. Her awards include Photo District News’s “PDN’s 30 New and Emerging Photographers to Watch” in 2009; Grand Prize Winner at the Palm Springs Photo Festival in 2012; two Pictures of the Year International (POYi) awards in 2015; and American Photography 31 winner in 2015. Her Radical Love photos also earned her accolades when they were selected in 2011 for Visa pour l’Image, the esteemed International Festival of Photojournalism, held annually in Perpignan, France.
Greaves didn’t start out thinking she’d spend years photographing at the monastery, let alone that a book would come out of it. The project began in 2008, after a small editorial assignment that took her to the monastery with a writer. That year she graduated from the International Center of Photography’s yearlong documentary photography and photojournalism program. She traded a successful career in graphic design — as art/creative director for interactive design agencies in London and the U.S., with clients like Nike, British Airways, Apple and Microsoft — for a new career in photography.
Her pursuit of photography was spurred by her mother’s last days in 2004. Greaves was with her mother when she died, and it made her stop and think about what she was doing with her life: it would have to include her camera. “I became deeply curious about who and what we are in this world, and how we are connected to whatever is beyond our physical being,” says Greaves. “This interest evolved into a fascination with dedicated spiritual communities, as these enclaves, I felt, offered the greatest example of concentrated spiritual connection.”
After her first day with the nuns, she kept thinking about them, especially Sister Lauren, who was just three weeks into living at the monastery. Sister Lauren had felt a call to religious service; in her junior year of college, where she was majoring in religious studies and biology, she had left school, and her boyfriend. Greaves wrote a letter to the prioress, asking if she could come back and continue taking pictures of the nuns. “I was so struck by the love, joy and happiness within the community. It’s different than many people’s preconceived notions of nuns. I wanted to convey a sense of this hidden world that is beyond most people’s understanding.”
One visit led to another. Multiple times a year, Greaves would stay for one to four days, sleeping in a basement guest room. Initially, she photographed monastery life in general, but soon it became clear that the story was about Sister Lauren. “I was able to tell her story from near the beginning,” Greaves says. “She’s a great example of the energy and vibrancy of all the young nuns, and I knew that the project would be more powerful told through the perspective of one character.”
David Gonzalez is a writer, photographer and co-editor for The New York Times blog LENS, which featured Radical Love in 2015. He observes, “Toni got to know these nuns. There’s an emotional honesty in the work that only comes with spending time with them, not just taking pictures. Once you know them, it’s hard to fall back on clichés. You realize they’ve got complex and fulfilled lives. Toni demystifies and shows the reality of the vowed life. She also shows the community aspect of a religious life, through the life of one individual among others. That’s vital to understanding them, and Toni gets that.”
When I ask Greaves how she gained Sister Maria Teresa’s and the other nuns’ trust, she says, “I care about the people I’m photographing, and I put their needs before my photographs or myself. There’s no contrived nature to gaining trust. It’s just a matter of being sincere and transparent, being kind and being a good person. It’s that way in photography, as in life.”