A Timeless Community: Images of Mennonite Families by Larry Towell | Photography

In 1990, Larry Towel began photographing a Mennonite family who lived in a dilapidated house a stone’s throw from his home in Lambton County, Ontario. “I didn’t go looking for them,” he said. “I met them in my own backyard.”

The Mennonites are a nonconformist Christian denomination dating back to the 16th century. They have traditionally lived apart from mainstream society in self-sufficient settlements, the more conservative communities resisting all forms of modernization, including machinery and electricity. In the long, evocative essay he wrote for his photo book, Mennonites, first published in 2000 and now about to be reprinted in reprinted form, Towell describes how the members of the Old Colony cult he met had traveled there from a long-established community in La Batea, Mexico, looking for seasonal work in the fields and orchards of Ontario. “I loved them very much because they seemed otherworldly and therefore completely vulnerable in a society they didn’t belong in and weren’t prepared for. Because I loved them, they loved me and even though photography was prohibited, they let me photograph them. That’s all there was to it.

After befriending and gaining the trust of a family, he was slowly introduced to others, sometimes taking his turn driving back and forth between Canada and Mexico. “I guess I identified with them to some degree,” Towell tells me over the phone from his home in Ontario. “They were rural, they were traditionalists and they were pacifists. They didn’t compromise, and because of that, they didn’t belong.

Towell’s intimate black and white images capture the simplicity and harshness of the Mennonite way of life, the austerity of their religious beliefs echoed in the windswept landscapes where they settled. Many of the people he portrayed had never been photographed before, which speaks to the connection he has forged with them over time. “Everyone was accepting to some extent,” he says, “but you’re not part of their community, so most of the time they leave you alone.”

His photographs of Mennonite families are often more evocative of life on the American prairies during the 1930s. long and scarves. Inside their homes, everything is spartan and functional: raw wooden chairs, handmade cribs, workbenches and cupboards. Outside, men and women work the land, mowing hay and tending livestock, traveling to and from the fields in horse-drawn carts and squat caravans. In one striking image, a child holds a puppy aloft next to the bleeding carcass of a freshly slaughtered pig. In another, rows of young schoolgirls sit attentively, chalk in hand, on slates.

In one or two photographs, his reluctant subjects, young and old, cover their faces with the inquisitive gaze of his camera. Elsewhere, however, there are traces of creeping modernity: Coca-Cola bottles on a table; young men passing beers after a day’s work; trucks and agricultural machinery where, not so long ago, there were only scythes, horses and carts.

Colony La Batea, Zacatecas, Mexico, 1999.
  • Colony La Batea, Zacatecas, Mexico, 1999.

During the 1990s, Towell photographed 23 Mennonite communities at a time of great change and upheaval. “The first time I went to Mexico, all the communities I visited were traditional, which meant there was no electricity and no vehicles except steel-wheeled tractors. By the time I was done, almost all of them had adapted to some degree. The evolution occurred in part because the Mennonites who came to Canada had to adapt to life there, and when they returned they brought modernity with them. His images have since acquired historic resonance as a document of a people caught between adhering to their biblical beliefs and the need to change in order to survive.

Chavé Colony, Campeche, Mexico, 1996.
  • Chavé Colony, Campeche, Mexico, 1996.

Towell now spends much of his time on his 30-acre sharecropper farm in Lambton County. He became a photographer in 1984, after teaching poetry and folk music, which remain constant interests. He tells me he’s about to release a triple album of original folk songs based on the places he’s photographed over the past four decades, including Nicaragua, El Salvador, Gaza and Afghanistan. When I talk to him, he’s packing for a flight to Poland the next day in hopes of getting into Ukraine to cover the war there. “I’m 68 and I don’t really like running anymore, but it’s in my blood,” he told me. “I don’t have a mission and I don’t have a plan, but we’ll see what happens when I get there. At this point, while the story is upon us, that’s all you can do.

Durango Colony, Durango, Mexico, 1994.
  • Durango Colony, Durango, Mexico, 1994.

Towell sees the Mennonites project as having an affinity with another body of work he has done even closer to home: The world from my porchan intimate study of family and place which was published in 2008. One of the photographs from it, Isaac’s First Swim, featured on a Canadian postage stamp in 2015. “Both series were born out of the same need,” he says, “which was to document, to some extent, what was familiar. The same instinct is behind the poetry I write and the music I make.

His work, whether from the conflict zones of the world or from his own locality, is characterized by a deep gaze and a desire to evoke the universal through the particular. “The Mennonites in my photographs are from Ukraine and Russia in the 19th century,” he says. “The scarves the women wear come from Ukraine. Everything is connected.

Stewart C. Hartline