Setanta presents c.1950 by Jake Michaels, a deeply absorbing portrayal of the Mennonites of Belize.
Mennonites are members of Christian groups that arose from Anabaptism (a radical movement that emerged during the Protestant reformation in the 16th century). Due to persecution from Catholics and other Protestant sects and their strong commitment to pacifism, they have a long history of emigration, and today, Mennonite communities exist across the globe.
The first Mennonites arrived in Belize, then called British Honduras, in 1958 from Mexico. Theological differences were the main issues that led to their relocation, and, the abundance of land, and an agreement with the country’s government, which included exemptions from military service and the right to establish private schools where lessons would be taught in their primary language, meant in Belize, they were afforded the autonomy to live the life they craved.
Over the years, the original group was joined by Mennonites from various countries further north, and today are they are estimated to be 12,000 in number. They continue to live in exclusive communities and retain much of their traditional practices and customs, from their Plautdietsch tongue to distinct attire. They largely eschew the lure of modern inventions, favoring archaic transport and age-old farming methods in their pursuit of a ‘simple’ life; one rooted in tradition, labor and family.
Michaels, a Los Angeles native, became interested in the rarely documented Belizian Mennonites several years ago and was subsequently sent to photograph them for an article in the New York Times. The images he captured would form the foundations for a more in-depth project, which would eventually engender the publication of his debut monograph.
It is, in his own words, a project that ‘encapsulates’ his focus within photography: ‘a blend of culture, light, and place.’ Free from preconceived narratives, his approach is forthright and candid, depicting the group as they go about their everyday lives.
Michaels’ growing profile is driven by his rare ability to render often seemingly innocuous moments of quotidian life into deeply absorbing images. This innate perceptivity, combined with the discerning eye of a documentarian, here, engenders something simultaneously poetic and descriptive.
But for the occasional incongruous element, (most notably, smartphones, one of the few items of modern technology that the group allows themselves to use), to an unsuspecting viewer, this body of work could easily be the inception of some early colorist rather than that of a modern-day practitioner. This is of course, in part, due to the nature of the subject matter, for little has changed in the lifestyle of the Belizian Mennonites since they arrived in the country more than six decades ago.
However, it’s also thanks to his impressive comprehension of light and a painterly eye for color, distilled and actualized in the medium and large-format analog frames. The understated hues emulsified with the iridescent Central American sun, possess a painterly quality, bringing to mind the Kodachrome renderings of those iconic pioneers of chromaticity.
It is an impressive and deeply absorbing debut. Presented beautifully by Setanta, as is befitting of the content, it articulately communicates the compelling austerity of the protagonists’ way of life, and thus, emphatically realizes Michaels’ ambition.
“Despite modern nuances, family and tradition bind this community, and their way of life is richly preserved. Their simple vision of society provides the rest of us with a mirror: one is left marveling more at the pace our own lives are changing rather than how theirs stays the same. I hope that c.1950 reminds us that it’s humans who make their social world based on a shared vision, and another one is always possible.” – Jake Michaels (Excerpt from c.1950)
c.1950 is available for purchase via Setanta
All images © Jake Michaels