Jake Michaels documents Belize’s Mennonite community

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Emigrating from Mexico in 1950, the Mennonites have resided in Belize for over 70 years 

Across Belize, there are over 10,000 Mennonites, a traditionally sectarian Christian denomination. A majority of this religious community can be traced back to Europe, as the group migrated from the Netherlands to present-day Ukraine, before moving to Canada in the 1870s, Mexico in the 1920s, eventually relocating to Belize in 1950. The Mennonites have historically travelled to new locations in order to maintain their traditions, pacifism, and religious freedom. Mennonites live by traditionalist beliefs, largely rejecting modern technologies, including cars and the Internet, and embracing the separation of church and state.. It is this community that American photographer Jake Michaels met in his latest project. 

From the series '1950' © Jake Michaels.

“I was interested in Mennonite culture, and these communities that aren’t really affected by modernity,” Michaels explains. The project began as a New York Times photo series, as the photographer travelled through Mexico to Belize in search of Mennonite life. With permission from a local pastor, Micheals photographed the project over seven days, rarely resting, shooting continually.

The Mennonites in Belize cannot be understood as a singular group. Some communities have embraced modern devices such as solar power, tractors, and Coca Cola, while, in other villages, electricity is scarce, and one can easily forget these images were taken just last year. Through the Mennonites’ culture, we can peer into a world left behind by globalisation, industrialisation, and technology. Indeed, in their world, the Mennonites have made a claim on time, which moves on their terms.

From the series '1950' © Jake Michaels.

c.1950, published by Setanta Books, plays with this temporality. “Belize is tropical, but when [the Mennonites] arrived, they cleared a lot of the forest and made it into rolling hills,”  describes Michaels. Indeed, the landscapes  are reminiscent of the mid 19th-century American countryside. However, they are modelled on pre-industrial European farms, the very farms the Mennonite ancestors would have worked on. “It’s almost like a replication of their origins,” Michaels explains.

The Mennonite’slove for life and one another is tangible. Waking at four in the morning and sleeping at eight , the community works six days a week, resting on Sundays. : “On Sundays, I went over to a family gathering after church. From 11 to five the kids play in the yard, and the adults sit on the porch and talk. It’s like that every week,” remembers Michaels “Nobody misses it, nobody has any distractions, and everyone really engages with each other. One place one time. It’s the ultimate version of being present.”

From the series '1950' © Jake Michaels.

“I felt my whole style of shooting slow down,” Michaels continues. With a tight schedule, getting as many shots as possible was a priority. Yet, with the close to absolute rejection of modern technology among the Mennonites, the photographer found that he was also slowing down. “It caused me to reflect more, I had all this time to generate ideas with no distractions.” 

It would be easy to view the Mennonites with a sensationalist lens. However, Michaels insightful photographs do not position their lives as an out of date phenomenon. Instead, he depicts their world as one endangering a complete and content way of life.

From the series '1950' © Jake Michaels.
Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.