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Land and freedom: Larry Towell’s nine-year document of Mennonite communities

Larry Towell knew little about the Mennonite people when he arrived in the fields of south-west Ontario in the early 90s. Slowly, he befriended the community, and documented their lives for almost a decade

It was in the fields of south-western Ontario – home to Canada’s so-called ‘vegetable belt’ – that documentary photographer Larry Towell first came across the Mennonite community. Once part of an important tobacco-growing region, by the beginning of the 1990s, Ontario’s farms were associated with a host of other labour-intensive crops, for which streams of seasonal workers were often in demand. In Lambton County, where Towell resided on a remote sharecropper farm, small clusters of Mennonites were thus appearing, setting up ramshackle residences on adjacent plots, and bringing with them centuries of knowledge in traditional agriculture.

The history of the Mennonites, whose name derives from that of Dutchman Menno Simons, a 16th-century Roman Catholic priest turned influential Anabaptist leader, is winding and troubled. The group adheres to a strict brand of Christianity, forged in an age when ceaseless religious fervour and its accompanying divisions ravaged much of Europe. As Towell sets out in the preface of his book The Mennonites, first published in 2000 by Phaidon Press, so unpalatable were the principles of Simons’ movement – “based on adult baptism, a strict form of pacifism and the separation of Church and State” – that “several thousand of [its] early members were imprisoned, tortured and killed”.

The persecution to which Mennonite communities were subjected drove their movement underground, rendering it increasingly insular. Persecution also sparked a staggering migration story, which – over the course of 500 years – saw bands of Mennonite churches spread from the Netherlands, spawning offshoots in Switzerland, Germany, France, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, USA, Canada, Mexico, Bolivia, Belize, Argentina and Paraguay. Offshoots bred further offshoots. In 18th-century Canada, one such contingent birthed the Amish, whose experiences have since occupied a far more prominent place in the media-sphere.

Kent County, Ontario,1996© Larry Towell / Magnum Photos

Today, Mennonite communities still live in isolated colonies, set apart from society at large. Their lifestyle is characterised by discipline, austerity, self-sufficiency and, largely, by the rejection of technology. Though Towell had some prior knowledge of this story – “I knew they were Anabaptists; that they were historical pacifists; that they’d been persecuted throughout history” – the project’s true starting point was a chance encounter with a local Mennonite, David Redekkop, who had taken up a job at Towell’s father’s car repair shop.

“I went to the shop to find him sweeping the floor,” he recalls. “His teeth were pretty well rotten, he didn’t trust the healthcare system of course, and I learned he had about a dozen kids. I thought to myself: this is my kind of guy, I need to meet him sometime.”

Sure enough, Towell was soon introduced to Redekkop’s family members, and later to other members of the Old Colony sect to which they belonged. It was seen as the most conservative of the 60 or so groups still in existence. From there, “a slow process of building trust” ensued, based on deep respect, mutual understanding and genuine connection. This was, after all, a camera-shy people for whom photography was historically forbidden. “Because I liked them, they liked me,” Towell states matter-of-factly. “That’s all there was to it.”

Durango Colony, Durango, Mexico, 1994 © Larry Towell / Magnum Photos Shot across Old Colony settlements in Mexico and Canada, the project concluded some nine years – and thousands of film rolls – after that first meeting with Redekkop. It is hard to believe that these images, portraying communities so ill-equipped for the modern world, could possibly belong to the 1990s.

Dressed modestly, the Mennonites appear in stark black-and-white, covering their faces or embracing the camera’s alien gaze with varying degrees of curiosity. The photographs emphasise harsh geographies – barren deserts and dusty prairies carved up in dirt roads and barbed-wire fences.

Shadow play conjures the sun’s unrelenting heat, seeping through windows to illuminate worn, drab interiors, or casting long silhouettes behind those toiling on the land, protected from its glare by wide-brimmed hats. While many of the project’s images point to the hard labours of colony life, be it tending to livestock, harvesting crops or lugging heavy milk pails, lighter moments of intimacy are visible throughout; children playing gleefully in a field, a man performing a handstand, a smiling couple caressing on a haystack. “I photographed them at this crucial moment of transition, which was caused by rebellion within the colonies themselves” Traces of tradition – expressed in antiquated tools, conservative clothing, the ubiquitous horse and cart – are offset by flashes of modernity; bottles of branded beer, the occasional car, a refrigerator. These juxtapositions reflect the specific period in which Towell became connected to the Mennonites. “When I found them they were very much 18th century, but by the time I left, they’d modernised,” he recalls. “I photographed them at this crucial moment of transition, which was caused by rebellion within the colonies themselves.”

For the impoverished Old Colony settlements in Mexico, a declining water table, unreliable rainfall and the desertification of once-fertile land had led to an ideological impasse. Towell explains that a staunch resistance to modern technology – at a time when electricity could have been used to pump wells and irrigate crops – was driving some to Canada for seasonal work, where they held historical ties. “People were coming to Canada and being immersed in contemporary popular culture, but they weren’t surviving well, because they weren’t armed to do so,” Towell explains. Beyond themes of religion, migration, community and identity, the project here speaks to key environmental questions that have, since the 1990s, become inescapably acute.

El Cuervo (Casas Grandes Colonies), Chihuahua, Mexico, 19921992© Larry Towell / Magnum Photos Over 20 years since the publication’s release, a reworked edition has been launched by the London-based Gost Books. The impetus to revisit the project, though, was not to reframe the original story in relation to burning contemporary issues. Instead, Towell’s motives are more conservative, underlining an attention to careful photo-editing and resequencing: “The challenge lies in how to maintain flow; how to go from one image to the next and have it make sense… how an image can suggest something that isn’t there. It’s a challenge I enjoy.”

Sifting through an astonishing 20,000 prints with publisher Stuart Smith, Towell brought 40 previously unseen images into the rework: “It’s the resurrection of a project I was very close to, but a very labour-intensive process.” Looking back at The Mennonites also invites reference to a photographic landscape much changed in recent decades. Shot entirely in analogue over a 10-year span, and published widely in print magazines, Towell’s project recalls a lost age of slower, more considered visual storytelling, a far cry from today’s snappy, knee-jerk online world.

Towell laments the “self-destructive, self-obsessed” nature of social media; symptomatic of an industry bottleneck that sees “more photographers competing for the same small space”. In his bold convictions, Towell’s own traditional tendencies come to the fore – though like the Mennonites, he remains an unmistakable, if unconventional, part of the present. A member of Magnum Photos since 1988, Towell spent much of the 1980s in Cold War conflict zones, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras.

There is a distinct air of irony, then, to the manner in which the story of the Mennonites found him, with the seeds of what would become his most revered project – and certainly his most personal – taking root just a stone’s throw from his own front porch. “When the book first came out, I couldn’t get the Mennonites out of my system,” he reflects. “It was a project and a particular society of individuals with whom I was very close; a study of a people I like and respect.”

It is notable, too, that Towell’s ongoing photojournalistic works – following US-bound migrants fleeing gang violence in Central America, or more recently, documenting Russia’s ghastly war crimes in Ukraine – are rooted in those same territories the Mennonites passed through, dovetailing once more with their meandering history.

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