Spanish photographer Jordi Ruiz Cirera‘s series Los Menonos is part of our #EscapeWeek, a special series of photo essays dedicated to groups of people who, in one way or another, for one reason or another, have retired from urban society.
Los Menonos is the portrayal of a community of Mennonites, a Christian group present all over the world which rejects modernity based on religious beliefs. In particular, the Mennonites seen in these photographs reside in Bolivia. Read our interview with Jordi to find out more about Los Menonos. You can find links to all the other stories in our #EscapeWeek at the bottom of this article.
Hello Jordi, thank you for this interview. How did you take an interest in photography?
I’m a self-taught photographer, I’ve always been interested in photography as a way to explore the world.
When I started photographing it was mainly linked with my interest in traveling. I loved to travel, and as an amateur photographer I liked to take pictures of everything was around me. Then I focused on documentary photography to combine photography with my social concerns. At the age of 25 I decided I would devote myself entirely to photography, so in 2011 I moved to London to study and got a Master of Arts in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography from the London College of Communication.
Please describe in brief the lifestyle of your subjects, the Mennonites. How do they live, and what are the main values of their religion?
In brief, Mennonites live as their ancestors did, with no cars, TV, electricity, birth control, music or games: all this is banned by their religion. The Mennonite belief has its core values in the refusal of modern machinery, non-violence, working the land, and a life devoted to God, so they maintain a very simple and humble lifestyle, and they like it that way. They wake up at dawn and work until dusk. Men work the land and the cattle, and women stay home with the kids, cooking and taking care of the farm.
How are the Mennonite communities organized politically? How are communal decisions made?
Every colony has a religious authority, the ministers, and a civil one, the chiefs. The ministers are are a few for each colony, they are chosen by the community and they have to commit to their function for the rest of their life. Basically, ministers rule the community: they decide whether something is allowed or not, and rule for the right application of the Mennonite law. If someone is going ‘the wrong way’, that someone is brought to the ministers, and is eventually expelled.
On the other hand, the chiefs are in charge of the administration of the community, and the relations with the Bolivian authorities.
What inspired you to do Los Menonos?
I’d say I was drawn by their secluded lifestyle. A friend told me about them while I was in Argentina, and I couldn’t believe that someone was living like in the 17th century these days. I wanted to know why and how, so I decided to go and visit them.
How long have you stayed with the community? Would you endorse their way of life?
I took two trips there, each one for about a month. I usually stayed 4 or 5 days with a family, living with them in their house, then I would move to the house of some of their relatives, always trying to choose houses where Spanish was spoken (Mennonites speak German amongst them).
It’s always difficult to judge someone else’s lifestyle based on yours. I would definitely say it worked for them, but I wouldn’t want it for myself.
Mennonites usually reject modern technology. Is photography considered as such? How did they relate with you, especially during the portrait sessions?
Yes, photography is considered to be modern technology, but this is not the only reason why it is banned. There is a commandment which forbids the production of graven images – something the Mennonites have in common with the Sunni Muslims, whose religion prohibits the reproduction of the full human image. According to anthropologist James Urrythere, moreover, photography may involve the sin of pride.
However, as it happens everywhere around the world, people interpret their religion in their own way. So there were some people who told me that they could not be photographed because photography is forbidden, while others said they were not allowed to take pictures, but it was okay to have a photo of them taken by me. The portraits were especially difficult, mainly because they felt awkward with the idea of sitting in front of the camera and looking straight at it. They didn’t know how to behave or what to do. Each portrait session lasted less than a minute, I would normally take one or two pictures of each subject.
From what you can tell, are the Mennonites content with their lifestyle?
Yes, I think they are. I had the impression that they have a sense of peace and of letting life happen that is difficult to find in other parts of the world, especially in the Western world. Nonetheless, there are of course some issues, and some people are unhappy with the restrictions and the way life is organized in the community.
In your project’s statement you write how your subjects arrived In Bolivia in the 1950s, driven away from countries like Canada, Mexico and Belize due to political restrictions and the lures of modern life catching up with the youngest, in particular. Apparently, this is happening again in Bolivia. Did you witness or hear of any of these stories? How does the community and the family react when a young member renounces the Mennonite lifestyle?
While the older generation moved to Bolivia to maintain their lifestyle and traditions, which were threatened in the countries where they formerly lived, the younger ones were more interested in opening up to the world. Just like all young people in the world, some kids are drawn to what is forbidden, mainly drinking or listening to music. Of course, this creates strong confrontations amongst families, and later with the community ministers.
Eventually some decide to leave or are expelled, in which case a completely new and different life awaits. You have to keep in mind that the Mennonites are completely removed from the local society, they don’t know much more than working the land, they don’t speak very good Spanish, and what’s more important, they live in an extremely closed environment, from which is very difficult to break away. Taking the decision of leaving family, friends and essentially everything you’ve ever known is a very difficult step.
I was quite interested in this aspect of Mennonite communities, so I kept looking for people who could explain more, but nobody was happy to talk about. It seemed like it was something to be ashamed of. I contacted some of the people who left, and they had quite a negative opinion about the colonies and the restrictions faced there.
Please share some insight into your creative process for Los Menonos.
During the first trip I focused on creating a reportage in the most traditional sense of it. I tried to document their lifestyle while being as much invisible as possible, and to do so I decided to live with them as long as I needed to.
On the second trip I felt I needed to add something else, something that would be different from other projects I had seen about this and other similar communities. That’s when I came up with the idea of the series of portraits, that would give a different view on the lifestyle and family roles of this extremely closed communities.
What camera(s) did you use to shoot Los Menonos?
I used a Canon 5d MkII and mainly a 17-35mm lens. I also had a 50mm but I barely used it.
Tell us the story of this photograph.
This was taken in David’s Penner house, in Milagrosa Colony, the second time I was in the country. I arrived there and a few of his kids had a very strong flu, which affected lots of kids in the community. They were suffering from a high fever and were really weak, and at that moment they were just lying on the ground to benefit from the freshness of the tiles.
Now you choose a photograph from Los Menonos and share with us something we can’t see in the picture.
In this photo, we can see a group of men covering their faces with their hats, while one kid looks at us. I shot this at a funeral in the Nueva Esperanza colony. Just as I arrived I heard that a young woman and her baby son had died in a car crash the day before. The community was absolutely devastated, and friends and relatives came from nearby colonies to attend the funeral. Although Mennonites are not allowed to drive, they can go on cars as passengers. The woman and the baby were on a car when unfortunately the driver fell asleep – they crashed into a truck parked on the shoulder.
The picture was taken after the mass, when they went to bury the coffin. The priest was saying some words, and everyone took off their hats but some of them were still covering their heads from the scorching sun. What suprised me the most was that they buried the coffin straight to the soil, with no gravestone or anything to mark it. I felt that was quite symbolic of the humble and simple lifestyle they maintain, nothing was superfluous at all, as pure as it gets. Austerity was something to be proud of, a sign of a humble life with no sin of pride or vanity.
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Explore all the other stories in our #EscapeWeek:
- Valley of Angels
- Environmentally Conscious, Politically Active, Frequently Naked – Meet Europe’s Rewilders
- Looking for a different life on the mountains of Europe
- Not all that shines is gold in the countryside
- Living nomadically to abide by ancient Native American principles
- Alone in the woods: photographs of Russian and Ukrainian Hermits