Since the 1800s, Old Colony Mennonites have conducted their lives far away from the rest of society. The most insular and conservative sect of the Mennonite Church, they reject mainstream schooling, speak Low German, adhere to strict, gendered dress codes, and shun modern technology. Although cameras are also prohibited among the group, the photographer Larry Towell befriended, lived with, and documented Old Colony farming communities in rural Canada and Mexico throughout the 1990s, a time when many members were forced from their traditional agrarian lifestyles into exploitative migrant farm work and underpaid menial labor to feed their large families.
The Mennonites (GOST Books, 2022) records Towell’s decade among the Mennonites as they struggle to hold on amid changing times and hard luck. Out of print for the past 20 years, the newly edited, updated, and revised book features more than 100 photos, including 40 that have never before been published. Towell’s gritty and haunting black-and-white snapshots of Old Colony life are accompanied by his visceral, diaristic texts detailing his observations and relationships with the people he encountered. His book reveals a little-seen, isolated world and raises significant questions about the unforgiving impact of tradition on human autonomy, identity, and quality of life. The Mennonites feels especially pertinent today, as many countries, including the United States, turn increasingly toward restrictive dictates based on religion.
Hardship seems an insufficient term to describe what’s going on in most of Towell’s photos. Beyond the dirt floors and dust storms, labor and hunger dominate his project. Old Colony members’ rejection of electricity, rubber tires, cars, and other innovations makes their labor infinitely more arduous, and we see the resulting precarity in their sparse meals and rough interiors. Hard, physical work like milking cows and picking crops is executed by everyone, from aging adults to small children. These blue-eyed, blonde kids dressed in quaint, doll-like dresses and overalls convey the difficulty and difference of this way of life perhaps more than anything else in Towell’s book. In an especially striking picture, a small boy in Mexico’s Durango Colony stands beside a plowed field, looking at himself in a cracked mirror, his face a mask devoid of any youth or joy.
The intensity of Towell’s photos is matched by his writing. The Mennonites he meets are often in dire straits. For example, Towell describes one who, distrusting mainstream medicine and lacking funds, pulled out some of his own infected teeth with pliers at his kitchen table. In another entry, Towell accompanies a Mennonite family of 10 on a harrowing journey from Canada to Mexico, where, over several days and many car breakdowns, the family subsists on little more than Coke and mayonnaise sandwiches. Still, Towell’s pictures and texts don’t come off as voyeuristic or essentializing. They are deeply unsettling, but the artist refuses to pass judgment — he leaves that to the reader. With its roots in the 16th-century Dutch Reformation, how much longer can the Old Colony ways last? How much longer should they?