arts and design

The big picture: Mennonite women in Belize

In 2018, the Los Angeles-based photographer Jake Michaels escaped from Instagram and 24-hour news for a while, to go in search of a community with a different sense of time. A colleague had suggested that he visit the Mennonite settlements in Belize, which were established in the middle of the last century and have hardly changed since. Michaels arrived among homesteads set in lush green hills in the twilight and the village pastor gave him permission to photograph the community’s families. He was struck by the silence, only interrupted by the sound of horses’ hooves and the wooden wheels of the buggies they pulled. He stayed for a long week.

The result of that trip is a book titled c1950 that captures the ways in which the Mennonites, an Anabaptist Christian sect, believe that they should be “in the world but not of it”. Their lives are based on principles of agrarian cooperation and mutual aid: older children take care of younger ones; neighbours are always on hand to fix farm equipment or help out with a harvest. The Belize government allows the group to live mostly independently on their own land; young men are not called up for national service and children are educated in line with the community faith.

Even so, that stubbornly maintained way of life is under increasing threat from the advance of technology. This picture was taken in a factory facility in which beans are sorted and bagged by Mennonite women. They make their own dresses and wear head coverings in public, giving the factory floor the look of a Renaissance painting. At the same time, the incongruous overhead electric lights suggest the modern world encroaching on traditional Mennonite practice. Elsewhere in Michaels’s photos, young men in dungarees drive pony traps, but have smartphones clamped to their ears.

c1950 by Jake Michaels is published by Setanta books (£40)


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