Intimate and nuanced portraits

Issue 2023, vol. 77

Review of The Mennonites by Larry Towell (GOST Books, 2022; originally published by Phaidon, 2000)

The overly ambitious title The Mennonites immediately stirred my wariness. As a pastor and development worker who has spent my entire career in Mennonite circles, I have done my share of describing “the Mennonites.” What might this book add to the conversation?

The Mennonites was first published in 2000 and has become a “bona fide classic work of longform photojournalism” (Kenneth Dickerman in the Washington Post). It was out of print until GOST Books of London worked with the author to revisit the project. The new edition expanded on the original with updated data and 38 previously unpublished photos.

A clothbound hardback held in a black slipcase, 9.8 by 7.3 inches with 288 pages, the book evokes an Old Colony Mennonite hymnal. The high-quality black-and-white photographs paint striking and intimate pictures of the people whose story the author tells.

The Mennonites is in essence a collection of three significant works. First is the “Preface,” in which Towell – with informed nuance – succinctly provides one of the best overviews of Dutch-Russian-Old Colony history I have encountered. The second work is the train-of-thought text composed of “flashbacks and fixations drawn from diary notes and the silt of memory.” The extensive text intimately and poetically describes the lives of several Old Colony Mennonite people and places Towell encountered in both Canada and Mexico between 1990 and 1999. Finally, the photographs are probably the most abiding work of this three-work collection. Some of them have achieved near-iconic status in both Mennonite and non-Mennonite circles.

In 1989, the author first encountered Old Colony Mennonites “in my own [rural Ontario] back yard, land hungry, and dirt poor.” He began the project in 1990 when, as he wrote, “I liked them a lot because they were other worldly. … Because I liked them, they liked me and although photography was forbidden, they let me photograph them.”

The early 1990s were especially difficult for Old Colony Mennonites living in Mexico. It was a time when massive inflation, economic collapse, climate drought, and agricultural  landlessness resulted in significant Mexican Mennonite migration. These conditions combined to exert immense pressures on anti-modernization and isolationist Mexican Mennonite communities. Whether out of sheer necessity (survival) or to escape encroaching modernism, many Old Colony Mennonites migrated. “The reality of farming in Mexico was overshadowing their ability to survive,” wrote Towell.

Traditionalists moved to South America, while the more accommodating migrated north to Canada. From the perspective of real people on the margins of Old Colony Mennonite culture, The Mennonites adeptly inserts itself into this turmoil with evocations of John Steinbeck prose and Dorothea Lange photography. Towell plainly illustrates contradictory forces at play during this time in Old Colony life and thought. He rightly identifies the basis of Old Colony Mennonite vocation as he observes that “when a Mennonite loses his land, a bit of his dignity is forfeited; so is his financial solvency. He becomes a migrant worker, an exile who will spend the rest of his life drifting among fruit trees and vegetable vines, dreaming of owning his own farm someday.” Furthermore, it is highly ironic that the anti-modernization Old Colonists strive to maintain their isolation by farming crops that are ultimately purchased and processed by globalist companies like ADM and Cargill.

This book has inspired many more photojournalists who followed in Towell’s footsteps in attempting to document the duotone photogenic Old Colony Mennonites. Dutch author Karin de Bont comes to mind as she picks up the Bolivian story with a similar book, No Other Foundation: Old Colony Mennonites in Bolivia (Lecturis, 2013). I  have  yet to find a piece of work as sensitive, intimate and nuanced as The Mennonites.

As much as I liked this book, I found myself wanting more. The  photos and text represent Old Colony Mennonite reality in the 1990s. Times have changed for Old Colonists all over Latin America and I found myself wanting similar photos of present-day Old Colony life. What is life like today for the places and people we meet in Towell’s book? I also wish that the photo captions provided more details. Towell introduces real and intriguing people in the text, but it is not clear if these people are portrayed in the photos.

There is room for fresh further work for future photojournalists. The migration between Canada and Mexico that Towell documented resulted in permanent Old Colony Mennonite settlements along the route. Communities like Paris and Tigertown, Texas, Bolie, Okla., and Sublette, Kan., have become relatively large Old Colony Mennonite settlements within the United States. Are the push and pull forces of this migration the same as in the 1990s? Is it easier or more difficult for Old Colony Mennonites to cross the international borders of Mexico, USA and Canada than it was in the 1990s? I look forward to seeing which as-yet-unpublished projects in the vein of Larry Towell’s work will accompany the copy of The Mennonites on my bookshelf.