Larry Towell, The Mennonites

Larry Towell: The Mennonites. The photo book by the 1996 LOBA winner now appears in a new extended edition

Even 30 years after it was taken, this series by the Canadian Magnum photographer remains a true find! In the nineties, Towell spent ten years accompanying 23 Mennonite communities. The project earned him the Leica Oskar Barnack Award in 1996, and four years later, he published a photo book. This important volume subsequently went out of print; but it has now been republished in a revised and updated edition. In addition to many of the photographer’s texts and memories, the book also includes 40 previously unpublished motifs.

“This is a personal book about my time with the Old Colony Mennonites, whom I photographed in rural Ontario and in Mexico, between 1990 and 1999. The text is a train of thought, composed of flashbacks and fixations, drawn from diary notes and the silt of memory.”

Towell’s sensitive, detailed and evocative black and white pictures offer deep insight into the life of the Mennonites. Their origins are found in 16th century Holland; and, to this day, they remain nonconformists who have traditionally set themselves apart from the world, living in settlements or colonies cut off from society. The photographer’s project focuses on the Old Colony Mennonites, who struggle constantly against modernity, which tries to change and absorb them. Rather than give up their lifestyle, they have been forced to migrate around the world, time and again, so as to maintain the freedom to live in the way they want.

Towell met the Mennonites for the first time close to his home in Ontario, Canada. The friendship that ensued allowed him unique access to their community. “In 1989, I discovered them in my own back yard, land-hungry and dirt poor. They came looking for work in the vegetable fields and fruit orchards of Lambton, Essex, Kent and Haldimand-Norfolk Counties. I liked them a lot, because they seemed otherworldly and, therefore, completely vulnerable in a society in which they did not belong, and for which they were not prepared. Because I liked them, they liked me; and although photography was forbidden, they let me photograph them. That’s all there was to it,” the photographer remembers.

At the time, the Mennonite community was in a process of change, Towell recalls: “The first time I went to Mexico, all of the communities I visited were traditional, which meant there was no electricity and no vehicles, apart from tractors with steel wheels. By the time I was done, they had nearly all 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 back with them.” Consequently, Towell’s images also serve to document a community pulled back and forth, between the adherence to Biblical convictions and the need to change in order to survive.

“My career was just beginning, really; so the LOBA gave myself and the project some recognition.”

The outcome of this friendship is a unique and sensitive portrait of an often misunderstood and marginalised society. Over many miles and seasons, Towell’s writings depict the experiences of the people he encountered; the harsh pressures of nature, the economy and society; and the struggle to keep the urge for change at bay.

When first published in 2000, the pictures already revealed a complete alienation from the modern-day world. This new edition, including images unpublished to date, remains just as poignant and gripping. Towell’s wonderful imagery offers insight into a world otherwise closed to the viewer.

Larry Towell

Born in Canada in 1953, Towell was the son of a car mechanic and part of a large family living in rural Ontario. He studied Visual Arts at York University in Toronto. After volunteering in Calcutta in 1976, he began to take photographs and to write. Following his return to Canada, he taught folk music to be able to feed himself and his family.

In 1984, Towell became a freelance photographer and author. He concentrated on themes of dispossession, exile and peasant uprisings, and wrote reports on the Contra War in Nicaragua, and the relatives of disappeared persons in Guatemala. Paradise Lost, his first essay to be published in a newspaper, dealt with the ecological consequences of the Exxon Valdez oil catastrophe in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. In 1996, Towell completed a project based on a ten-year reportage in El Salvador. This was followed, a year later, by the book titled Then Palestine; and, with the help of the inaugural Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, he completed a second highly-acclaimed book on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in 2005. In 2008, he published The World from My Front Porch, a project about his own family in rural Ontario, where he co-manages a 75-acre farm. His Afghanistan photo book was published in 2014, and is based on a six-year reportage on the war.

Larry Towell is also a talented musician and songwriter. He is the author of five music and poetry CDs.

Larry Towell, The Mennonites
288 pages, 131 duotone images, 25 x 18.5 cm, English, GOST

Read the LOBA 1996-Article

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