The Power of Images To Change Lives
Marie Constantin, the photographer and author of Finding Calcutta: Memoirs of a Photographer, understands images have power, more power than words alone to impact lives.
It was an image in a documentary film that turned Constantin’s life completely around in the early 1990’s. She was a young journalist, completely focused on establishing her career and partying with friends when an image of Mother Teresa holding a starving person flashed across the t.v. screen with the words, “God didn’t do this; we do it because we do not share what we have”. Suddenly tears streamed down Constantin’s face. The very next day she found herself washing dishes in a soup kitchen run by Mother Teresa’s nuns in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was one photo of Mother Teresa on t.v. which catapulted her into volunteering with the sisters and opened the door to her calling, her vocation.
I recently spoke with Constantin, who has photographed some of the world’s worst slums in Calcutta, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Tijuana where she discovered beautiful nuns, serving with joy. “Mother Teresa and all the nuns I was privileged to be around or write about stole my heart forever. I gave it back in this book”.
Marie Constantin’s Famous Image of Saint Teresa
Constantin stumbled into professional photography accidently. A native of Hartford, Connecticut who studied journalism at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Constantin did not even own a camera when the Baton Rouge Business Report asked her to take a photo of the bishop. She was thrilled when they paid her fifty dollars for the photo.
When she took photos of Mother Teresa in New Orleans and a year later in Baton Rouge in 1985 , she was still not confident. “I didn’t really understand this woman. I was just starting my commercial business and I was fixated on myself.”
However, as Constantin reflects back on this photo gig, she says, “Unbeknownst to me, I had taken this beautiful photo”. This photo would become world famous as the official Beatification photo of Blessed Mother Teresa unveiled in front of 300,000 people in St. Peter’s Square. Ironically, that famous photo sat forgotten in a box for almost ten years.
While volunteering at the soup kitchen in the 1990’s, a regional mother superior of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Order asked to see the photos she had taken in 1985 of Mother Teresa. As a result, Constantin was then invited to travel with Mother Teresa when she visited the United States to photograph the Missionaries of Charity’s ceremonies so the nuns could send photos to their families. Constantin traveled to Calcutta three times; she tried to take photos on her first trip, but it was too difficult and invasive. Twice she hired a guide to set out to take pictures, and twice she decided not to do it. On her second trip, she just did the work in the different facilities, and her third trip was to make the Come-and-see with the Contemplative branch of Mother Teresa’s order. Constantin did not end up becoming a nun.
Constantin sent a priest a photo of Mother Teresa for his prayer book. Years later he was in a meeting where the Vatican was looking for a beatification image. Nothing they had worked, so he pulled out the image she had mailed to him and that was it. Constantin was stunned.
When Constantin returned to Rome for Saint Teresa of Calcutta’s canonization, she learned her photo was also on thousands of medals distributed to pilgrims.
Marie Constantin’s self-published book, Finding Calcutta: Memoirs of a Photographer, is much more than a mere collection of photos, it is a love story shining a spotlight on the sacrificial work of nuns who do not talk about social justice but actually live it out.
“I would hope in some way this book will help bring nuns back into the consciousness of people,” said Constantin.
The book is filled with intimate shots of Saint Teresa. By using a long range lens, Constantin managed to capture the real, vibrant Mother Teresa, not the more subdued persona she showed to the public. Mother Teresa and her nuns were down to earth, serving with laughter, without pretension in simple, practical ways.
Constantin hopes to inspire this same type of practical social justice in her readers.
Finding Her True Vocation
Constantin still finds fulfillment by volunteering in the local soup kitchen but God also opened up a way to influence a wider audience.
Although she felt drawn to a consecrated life as a nun, Constantin realized it is difficult for most artists to live in structured communities because most artists express themselves spontaneously. Few artists survive religious life without damaging their core identity; they cannot remain true to their God-given artistic gift, an essential part of who they are, and become part of a corporate identity at the same time.
Gradually, Constantin discovered her calling was not to become a nun but to witness and call attention to the holiness of simple nuns and challenge people to practical social justice through her art, her photographs as well as her personal stories.
Writing With Integrity
Constantin tried to publish her book traditionally but when one publisher wanted to completely change her book so it was more “palatable” to a wider audience she decided to simply write a book for her niece and nephews. Constantin basically wanted to tell them that there might be “horrible stuff happening in the world but we have these nuns, amazing people who are filled with joy even as they give up their lives to serve the poor”.
Initially, Constantin imagined hiding the book in a safety deposit box to be read by her family after she died but God had other ideas. She struck out on her own by self-publishing. At the moment, only 600 books have been sold locally but I think God just might surprise Marie Constantin yet again.
The world really does need to rediscover little, hidden nuns who joyfully lay down their lives for those who have been abandoned.
images copyright : Marie Constantin