Larry Towell — The Mennonites

8 min. read (or watch the video)

One of the beauties of living in Canada is that we still have a functioning public library system. Books are expensive, and although it is a delight to have one’s own books, owning them isn’t always necessary. Here in Regina, Saskatchewan we have a great public library with a vast selection of delicious titles – new and old. My love for books comes to me from my parents. They owned many, when I was a child. Now they have none. But that is a different story. In our living room, on the bottom shelves of a wall of books — within my five-year-old reach — they kept our photo books. Along with a hundred National Geographic Magazines, there were a few true master pieces.

I have a vivid memory of books, similar to the much later work of Tomasz Kizny’s “Gulag: Life and Death Inside the Soviet Concentration Camps.” Shots like those assembled by Kizny are burned into my inner eye. They are visions that can’t be un-seen. These black and white compositions have been with me for over thirty years now. Another book on that shelf was Roman Vishniak’s “A Vanished World,” which tells the story of Eastern Europe’s Jewish shtetl life before Shoa. These and other books have shaped my view of the world, in part because of the power of their vision, because of the sincerity of their subjects, and because as a child my parents took me to many of the locations shown in these books.

In our home — especially through my dad, who had worked for a while as a photographer — I learned about Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Dorothea Lange, and others. This built a deep respect in me for the Magnum group of photographers. People with cameras, with passion to document, and to share places most of us would never experience. A visceral kind of immersive therapy. One of these Magnum masters of black and white is Canadian-born Larry Towell. Our Regina public library has a copy of his breath-taking series, “The Mennonites.”

When you crack the lid, you find a tassel. It isn’t supposed to be read in a day. Before we enter the lives of these deeply religious communities, we are greeted by three of teenagers. One is puffing his cigarette’s smoke into your face. As a greeting, perhaps. On verso, a toddler sleeps amidst buckets full of cucumbers, cuddled atop a moving harvester, near the working hands of a woman. It’s not just the smell of juvenile smoke and labour. Towell is sharing notes from 10 years of living near people “who struggle with God at the end of a hoe” (from the preface). And he does it on scritta — the cigarette paper stolen from the bible.

Smoke [1) El Cuvero (Casas Grandes Colonies) Chihuahua, Mexico, 1992]
[2) Kent County, Ontario, Canada, 1996]

From Ontario to Mexico and back. Before that from Ukraine. And before that from Menno Simon’s Holland to Prussia. There is much to be said about the lives of a people in search of safe haven since 1536. It’s not my place to do so. I’m not a Mennonite or a historian, and I am showing you this book to a different end. In all of his 115 photos, fewer than 30 document the life of Mennonite animals. Among the love, kisses, and cigarettes, the pain, dust—and the distrust—there are cows, horses, chickens, dogs, and pigs. Although a poet, Towell doesn’t write much about them.

Girl with a dog [5) Santa Rita Colony (Cuauhtémoc Colonies), Chihuahua, Mexico, 1991]

I don’t know her name. She’s holding a pup. It’s lanky legs and paws draped over her half-bare embracing arms. It’s a womanly picture. Her face out of focus, she’s gazing to her left. Three-quarter sleeve cardigan. A faint ray of light illuminates her elegant narrow-band watch. My mother had one. It counts. And here it forms the centre of a picture. Although it may be one thirty in the afternoon, for all that matters, time stands still. If she was twelve then, and if she is still with us, then now she must be 42. The dog is a memory. Maybe she still has the watch. If it was her’s.

Calf in a carcass of a vehicle [6) La Batea Colony, Zacatecas, Mexico, 1996]

The windows have been smashed, the engine is taken. But the carcass of this vehicle, that a family from Canada to Mexico, is a fine place to play. I remember playing in abandoned vehicles. The smell of old oil, rotting upholstery, rusting steel. Calves know to have fun. They bounce and pounce, they know how to live vividly in those days before their growing bodies come to dominate their movement — before we slaughter the yearlings and make the females into milk producers. This little one has used its nose to open the right-side front door. What a glorious hideout!

Cow with human baby on man’s lap [7) La Batea Colony, Zacatecas, Mexico, 1994]

I remember walking the streets of Minsk in 1994 — streets my grandfather built as a prisoner of war — then this baby was born, in La Batea, Mexico. I was 13, and this little person would now be 27. Where are they now? What a face. A well-combed man, proud father, or maybe brother? Sharp little eyes peering from a swaddling cloth, focused on Towell’s shiny lens. Cheeks filled with breast milk, perhaps from the woman whose silky right sleeve graces the rough overalls? Mmm… milk from the breasts of one who will pull a stool and milk that cow’s udder at three thirty.

That hand [8) Santa Rita Colony (Cuauhtémoc Colonies), Chihuahua, Mexico, 1996]

Out of the black shade of the left hand frame comes shooting a white hand. Is it a woman’s hand? The directions are clear. The work is in progress. One person’s kitchen chores are anothers’ last day. The pig has bled out now, forming a puddle of sticky blood and dust for a little blond girl to frolic around. Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! Puppy loves to fly. When the power is back, when the carcass is cut, plug-in that steel-made meat grinder.

Kicking Horse [9) La Batea Colony, Zacatecas, Mexico, 1996]

Kicking horse, driven tandem on an open road, by two men in straw hats. Nameless perhaps, unbroken. Or simply defiant; rearing for a life beyond blinders, beyond the narrow path from Nazareth. What were you feeling that day? Who calmed you down? Who bears your testimony? Flung-up hooves of a free spirit — you’ve made history. Mennonite horse of La Batea. Your Intensions remain unwritten, but your image is co-opted, you are now a symbol. And for yourself, did you ever find your place? Did you make your peace with those straw hats?

Horse with Corona [10) La Batea Colony, Zacatecas, Mexico, 1994]

When I hear that clinking of glass, that fiz-pop and laughter, it’s always followed by a brief scent of ferment. Water is good, grain is too. Mine will come later tonight. I’ll be standing here for a while. Let them chatter. Slow swigging hastens the eve. Boys, not men. Evading the pulpit, hiding the evidence. It could’ve been Coke. But no, tainted conscience is what makes this work. Canada has brought us freedom and 24-hour towing. If this sun will not set, if this crop will not grow, maybe next year they’ll go back to Ontario, and I shall be sold.

* * *

I have always been fascinated by intentional communities. In their midst the darkness of our humanity seems accentuated. unfairly, perhaps. It’s easy to judge their members on a thousand different grounds. Yet what draws me to them is the glimmer of an underlying dream, and the willingness to give up so much for it — no matter how misled, how conflicted. It would be ludicrous to claim I was better, more enlightened. These photos reveal my own humanity. But what stands out to me are these animal lives, mixed with the life and vision of these people of the prairies and pampas of Canada and Mexico. These are the stories of a multispecies society.

Get a copy of Larry Towell’s book at a library near you via worldcat.

See Larry Towell’s other works at MAGNUM PHOTOS.

For more information on the history of Mennonites in Canada, check out this book.

By alexoehler

I am an environmental anthropologist at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.