This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – GOST Books republishes Larry Towell’s extraordinary documentary project, The Mennonites. Plus the FotoEvidence Book Award 2023 is now open for entries.
Breaking news: I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of my dear friend and an amazing photojournalist Tim Page on 24th August. Now is not the time for words, but to send love to his partner Marianne Harris and his son Kit at this distressing time. Vale Tim.
The 2023 FotoEvidence Book Award is “dedicated to the impact of the Russian invasion and war crimes in Ukraine. The book by multiple, local, and international photographers, produced and published by FotoEvidence will serve future generations as evidence of the violence of war and the crimes committed on Ukrainian soil, a tool for activism, a memory keeper, and a volume of history. The book will be published in July 2023 and launched in September in Ukrainian, Russian and English languages.” Entries close 1st December 2022.
And join me, Juno Games and Meredith O’Shea my co-judges in this year’s Maggie Diaz Photography Prize for Women to find out who the winner is on Thursday 1st September at Brightspace Gallery, 8 Martin Street, St Kilda.
Larry Towell – The Mennonites
In reviewing Larry Towell’s extraordinary documentary project, The Mennonites, I am reminded of a quote by critic John Berger who wrote in 1982 of the relationship between photographs and words. Berger suggests that “the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given meaning by the words. And the words, which by themselves remain at the level of generalization, are given specific authenticity by the irrefutability of the photograph. Together the two then become very powerful; an open question appears to have been fully answered.”
I might not agree with Berger’s assertion that the photograph is “weak in meaning” but I do believe that the pairing of text and image can enhance understanding and provide depth that neither form necessarily delivers alone. It is built into our DNA that seeing is believing, the evidence in this regard is irrefutable, but seeing doesn’t necessarily equate to knowing.
In The Mennonites, which has been reimagined by GOST books after being out for print for 20 years, Towell’s observations made from original diary entries and in the passing of time, bring a richness to the narrative that makes this book utterly captivating, revelatory and at times quite frankly, shocking. Documentary is meant to surprise, to illuminate and enlighten, to shake us up and take us out of the comforts of our own existence and of course to shine a light on the lives of others so that we may evolve our thinking and compassion. Through Towell’s eyes and words, The Mennonites is both a timeless dissertation on human vulnerability and a fascinating account of the strictures of belief.
The moment I removed the black linen-covered book from its slipcase I knew this was a very special publication, both physically and in its narrative scope. Texture has a large part to play in the engagement and enjoyment we derive from printed books. A heavy matte stock is used on the pages that feature the exquisite reproductions of Towell’s black and white photographs and the more formal text. A lighter paper conveys Towell’s ruminations. Using two different stocks may be explained as a subtle design feature. Yet it creates a sense of intimacy between the photographer and the reader; we are no longer strangers but sitting together as the story unfolds.
In taking time to fall into the rhythm of the story as it slowly advances, the book reveals its true reward: the opportunity to experience the intimacy of Towell’s encounters with these men, women and children, relationships that unfolded over time and space. Through viewing the quiet, meditative and intensely raw images and reading Towell’s lyrical, almost poetic, and at times painful observations, we come to know as well as see.
While imagination, and cultural relativism may help in reading images, Towell’s prose takes us to moments where the beat of thousands of flies’ wings, the oppression of crushing heat, the pungency of unwashed bodies and the love of family rise from the pages in palpable draughts that punctuate the air as the pages turn.
Towell’s relationship with the Mennonite communities in Ontario, Canada and Mexico began in the last decade of the 20th Century. This in itself is intriguing. The 1990s was a decade of rapid technological change – in 1992 the world wide web was launched and eight years later more than 100 million people were online. Email had become a way of life and so had mobile phones. To meet people who lived so far beyond the realms of the modern world was an education for Towell, one he passes to his readers, the wonder of this life revealed anew on every page.
The Mennonites’ domain into which Towell entered is the antithesis of the nineties, an era when modernity was on steroids. But here in this world where time has stood still, the images are reminiscent of the Great Depression and dust bowl era of the 1930s. Shunning the trappings of the modern world, including things I cannot imagine living without like electricity and post-penicillin health care, the Mennonites have perpetuated a centuries-old insular, and now decaying, existence. Seemingly the refusal to participate in modern life brings with it the promise of being closer to God and the beauty of the afterlife, ideals worthy of mortal sacrifice. Not an original proposition, but one that is increasingly difficult to abide by when life is breathtakingly hard as Towell reveals.
Looking from the outside in, this unfamiliar existence appears, as Towell writes, “otherworldly.” It was this foreignness that drew Towell to these folk who were, in his eyes, “completely vulnerable in a society in which they did not belong and for which they were not prepared.” As the story unfolds, it is obvious that these people are not only unprepared, but downright fearful of the ravages the outside world will reap. Yet their aversion to education, the use of child labour (images of small children working in fields echo the work of Lewis Hine who fought for decades to abolish this very practice) and the debilitating poverty in which most live, plays into the hands of the capitalist society they shun. Willing lambs to the slaughter. And as Towell reveals, there is agony in watching these gentle people allow themselves to be walked over, time and again.
His first encounter with a Mennonite came in 1989 in Towell’s father’s autobody shop in Ontario, Canada. There he met a thirty-something man named David, a father of nine, who was working as a casual hand sweeping the floor. David and his family had made the trek north from Mexico where the ‘colony’ they had been part of had failed. The two men connected and Towell was brought into the fold, given access to a way of life few outside the faith will ever know. Over the coming years, Towell travelled with various Canadian Mennonite colonies to Mexico where they escaped the harsh Canadian winters; again the echoes of the itinerant farm workers of the 1930s are here.
Towell explains that even though “photography was forbidden, they let me photograph them.” This bending of the rules was not unusual for many of the Mennonite colonies that Towell encountered in the 1990s. In fact, by the end of that decade, few colonies adhered to the strictures of traditionalism that had separated them from the rest of the world driven from the confines of faith by the need to survive. This was not without considerable spiritual, emotional and financial risk, the ultimate penalty being excommunication. Nor does it mean that caution was thrown to the wind and the modern world let in unbridled. But some concessions were made like using motorised vehicles, which were often hidden in the scrub to conceal the sin from the colony’s elders and ministers.
The Mennonites seem to live between two worlds, and as a consequence suffer two different types of purgatory; one wrought by the doctrine they are trying to abide by and the other suggested by the life they are at pains to avoid. While I cannot understand their choices that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the opportunity that Towell has given me to see their pain and also their joy and to learn from their journey.
The Mennonites: Larry Towell
250 x 185 mm Portrait format
Features an additional 40 images previously unpublished
Larry Towell (born 1953, Canada), was the son of a car repairman and grew up in a large family in rural Ontario. He studied visual arts at Toronto’s York University where he was given a camera and taught how to process black and white film. Following volunteer work in Calcutta in 1976 he began to photograph and write. Upon his return to Canada he taught folk music to support himself and his family, and became a freelance photographer and writer in 1984, focusing on the dispossessed, exile and peasant rebellion when he completed testimonial projects on the Nicaraguan Contra war and the relatives of the disappeared in Guatemala. His first published magazine essay, Paradise Lost, exposed the ecological consequences of the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. In 1996, Towell completed a project based on ten years of reportage in El Salvador, followed the next year by a major book, Then Palestine. With the help of the inaugural Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, he finished a second highly acclaimed book on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in 2005, and in 2008 released the award-winning The World From My Front Porch, a project on his own family in rural Ontario where he sharecrops a 75-acre farm. Afghanistan was released in 2014 based on six years of reportage on that war. Larry is also a gifted musician and song writer, author of five music/poetry CDs, and a soon to be released triple vinyl LP of original ballads entitled The Man I Left Behind.
All images © Larry Towell / Magnum Photos