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. In 2012 and 2013, I re-traced the refugee migrations of my Mennonite ancestors to see the places where they lived and died. I followed their historical journey through The Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Siberia, photographing the communities, farmland, execution sites and mass graves that had been left behind.
In 2012 and 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 The Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, 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 peaceful 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 encountered similar oppression. In the late 18th century, the Mennonites migrated to Russia, where they lived peacefully until the Russian Revolution brought the Mennonites into an era of extreme hardship and bloodshed. During the Revolution, entire Mennonite villages were wiped off the map in nighttime massacres that saw men, women and children struck down by Bolshevik soldiers on horseback. Those who were able to escape with their lives would return to their villages the following day to bury their neighbours and families in unmarked mass graves before beginning new lives as refugees. In the decades to follow, countless Mennonites perished in Soviet Gulags and as victims of secret executions. Throughout their history, the Mennonites have been repeatedly put in a position where they have had to decide between taking up arms and abandoning your faith; leaving their homes, possessions and land behind; or dying where they stand. Today, the Mennonites are a fragmented people without a home. They reside within the fleeting pockets of peace and freedom, scattered throughout our world. Five centuries of persecution and the ever-growing influence of modern society have taken their toll on traditional Mennonite culture. The process of carrying out this work was an intensely emotional process, but the experience taught me to admire the Mennonites for their strength and personal sacrifices. Above all else, I was able to see first-hand how hostilities brought against pacifist peoples are more than an injustice; they are an attack upon the very notion of peace itself.
Ian Willms' photographic practice resides within the gulf between fine art and photojournalism. While his work consists of storytelling and real subjects, it often carries a deeply personal perspective and emotional presence. Ian's work explores the narratives of disempowered peoples, wounded environments and dying cultures that are often the symptoms of "progress" and economic growth. Over the last four years, Ian has been exploring the environmental, social and cultural impacts of Canada's Oil Sands industry that are felt within the remote Indigenous communities of Northern Alberta. His most recent project is a photographic ode to his pacifist Mennonite ancestors, who endured five centuries of brutally violent oppression throughout Europe, Russia and Siberia. Ian’s work has been exhibited in North America and Europe, including exhibitions at Gallery 44 Centre For Contemporary Photography, the Contact Gallery and O'Born Contemporary. Ian’s work has also been honoured and supported by the Magnum Expression Photography Award, the Pictures of the Year International competition, the Burn Emerging Photographer Fund, the National Magazine Awards and the Canada Council for the Arts. Ian is part of the Global Assignment by Getty Images roster and is a founding member of the Boreal Collective. He is loosely based in Toronto.