The inaccurate ways we portray nuns

One of the most powerful ways we receive and process information is visually. And we don't get too much of a chance to discuss how coverage of religion news is shaped by visual images that accompany copy. But someone sent me a link to a story and told me I had to check out the picture that accompanied it. It got me thinking. The picture in question can be found here. It accompanies a story about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Taken by an Associated Press photographer, this was the picture I saw in most local or regional coverage of the LCWR annual meeting in St. Louis last week. The caption is "Sister Anne Nasimiyu of Kenya, right, and Sister Lucy Marindany of Milwaukee, Wisc., join other members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The largest U.S. group for Roman Catholic nuns met to decide how they should respond to a Vatican rebuke and order for reform."

These sisters are attired in traditional clothing.

I had previously noted that other stories were accompanied by pictures of sisters in traditional habits. Here's NBC for instance. Here's the New York Times.

I know what you're saying: What's the big deal? What could possibly be more expected for these stories than pictures of sisters in habits?

And yes, it's almost a cliche.

If you were at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, wouldn't you expect to see hundreds of sisters in habits?

You might expect that. But would you be right to? Many stories about the conference explained that most sisters were not attired in habits but, rather, casual clothing. We don't need to get into the theological difference between wearing habits and casual clothing but suffice to say they exist and actually fuel heated debate. What's more, these differences in attire relate to much larger discussions about tradition and the roles of women religious.

If, generally speaking, these sisters were not wearing habits, should the sole picture accompanying the article indicate that they were?

My colleagues and I had an internal discussion about how impossible it is to find images of sisters wearing informal attire. They just don't exist, whether you're looking for stock photos or file photos. It's amazingly difficult.

That led to a further discussion about how photographers are probably thinking they're doing the right thing, upon being assigned to an annual LCWR meeting, to seek out those habit-wearing nuns and snap some photos. What photographer would think they were supposed to take pictures of sisters in polyester pants when there's a visually compelling habited nun sitting next to her? They would need to be prepped with some background about the significance of attire if they were to get visually interesting shots of those sisters who were less formally dressed.

But I want to end this by showing how it can be done. I noticed that the St. Louis Archdiocese newspaper had a slideshow of great shots of the conference. There were a few shots of sisters in habits, but most of the pictures showed the sisters dressed casually -- just as the news reports indicated was the case. But what's great about this slideshow is that the pictures are quite compelling. Some of them are stunning, in fact. I would love to show them to you but because of copyright restrictions, you'll have to click through on your own. Then let me know what you think.

Perhaps it was because she had more insight into the background of the LCWR, but photographer Lisa Johnston captured some great shots.

Photo of nun with hula hoop via Shutterstock.

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