You may remember the image: a girl looks apprehensively at the camera, her fingers covering her mouth as stray strands of hair fall across her face. She is dressed simply – in a patterned dress – and sits in sparse surroundings. This portrait of a young Mennonite woman – Margarita Teichroeb – won the 2012 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize (and made the cover of BJP). The judges praised the use of muted colours, the image’s “otherworldly feel”, and its timeless quality. Indeed, it is an image that could have been taken many decades ago; there is little to suggest this is a contemporary portrait.
Its creator is Spanish photographer Jordi Ruiz Cirera, who between 2010 and 2011 spent time in Santa Cruz in Eastern Bolivia, photographing the Mennonite communities that live and work there. These are notoriously tight-knit communities, isolated colonies that are “remote and difficult to access” as Ruiz Cirera writes in the text for his new book, Los Menonos. They are people, he tells us, who view themselves as “God’s flock”, and choose to live far from society, turning their backs on modern comforts. Theirs is a humble and at times grueling life lived on and for the land; a way of life that has in many ways remained unchanged for centuries.[bjp_ad_slot]
In the book (Ruiz Cirera’s debut, which was recently published by Éditions du LIC), we are given a rare glimpse inside these ordinarily closed communities. The access granted to Ruiz Cirera meant he was able to produce images of surprising intimacy – we see a family having dinner, girls plaiting their hair, a man writing a letter, and children playing. The intimate nature of these domestic moments is accentuated by Ruiz Cirera’s careful approach: he gets close enough to allow the viewer to feel as though he or she is part of the scene yet retains a respectful distance; after all, these are people, we are told, for whom photography is not normally part of their lives. The result is images that are sensitive and reverential, rather than prying and exploitative.
Candidly caught shots sit alongside posed images and those that capture the starkness of the expansive landscape. The dryness of the air is palpable and the parched ground provides a backdrop for Ruiz Cirera’s contemplative group and individual portraits. The Mennonites’ attire – wide rimmed hats or headscarves, dungarees, braces and dresses – is reminiscent of the Amish communities, and as photography critic Sean O’ Hagan points out in his text for the book, there is a feel of the American West: “it is as if the old American West of pioneers and pilgrims has been transposed to modern day Bolivia.”
The book’s simplicity is its strength; there are no design frills – in keeping with the subject – and each of the 57 painterly images stands squarely on its own as well as slotting into the cohesive, lyrical whole. Ruiz Cirera has done a brilliant job of weaving the images together to create a fascinating picture of this immensely private people. Rather than imposing a narrative he leaves room for the viewer to interpret the images in his or her own way. A beautifully poetic book, and a reminder that to allow photographs to speak -encumbered by captions or lengthy passages of text – is to hear them sing.