WHY WE WALK (2012-2013)
I re-traced the refugee migrations of my Mennonite ancestors to witness the places where they lived and died. I followed their historical journey through Europe, Russia and Siberia, photographing the communities, farmland, execution sites and mass graves that had been left behind. The path on which I traveled emulated the nomadic history of the Mennonites, while I searched for a feeling of familiarity and a connection to the former homes of my distant relatives. In most places along the migration route, the lingering presence of the Mennonites was little more than a collection of memories; a pockmarked gravestone; the mossy foundations of a farmhouse; a group of blurry faces, locked away in a history textbook. I found myself sifting through seething cow pastures and rural villages, seeking the ghosts of unimaginable heartbreak and tragedy.
At the heart of the Mennonite religion, you’ll find an unwavering commitment to pacifism and freedom that has endured five centuries of violent, unrelenting oppression. This work is a photographic ode to an endless journey that my Mennonite ancestors undertook in order to maintain their beliefs.
The Mennonite religion was first formed in The Netherlands during the 16th century. Their resistance to the state rule of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches of the day meant that many Mennonites were arrested and publicly tortured to death throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. This eventually led to the a mass exodus of Mennonites to Poland, where they were allowed religious freedom for a century until the Polish rulers began to force them into military service. In the late 18th century, the Mennonites chose to migrate again -- this time to Ukraine and Russia. Life in Russia was prosperous and peaceful until the Russian Revolution brought the Mennonites into an era of extreme hardship and bloodshed.
For nearly 70 years, Mennonites throughout the Soviet Union were imprisoned, exiled, massacred and executed by the Russian authorities. In the words of Peter Wiebe, a notable Mennonite historian in Siberia, the Russian Mennonites had been "wiped from the Earth" by the time the Soviet Union dissolved.
When the Iron Curtain lifted, the Russian Mennonites were a fragmented people. They picked up and left their homes behind once again, in search of the fleeting pockets of peace and freedom within our world. The dead who were left behind lay in silent testimony to an era of bloodshed brought against a pacifist people; an attack on the very notion of peace itself.