Originally founded in the 16th century, Hutterites are an Anabaptist sect which now has some 50,000 members, many of whom live in colonies in the northwestern reaches of the North American continent. Distanced from mainstream life and society, the communities are often economically and culturally self-sufficient.
Photographer Tim Smith first encountered Hutterites by chance. “In 2009 I was out exploring the prairies west of the city I live in when I came across women from Deerboine Hutterite Colony planting their colony garden. After spending the afternoon making photos of the women as they worked, I wanted to learn more about the community,” he tells CR. “I kept returning to the colony on my own time while at the same time poring over every book and research paper I could find on Hutterite history.”
Smith initially thought of it as a relatively short term project, but he went on to spend the past 12 years building relationships with the colonies in Manitoba, Canada and documenting their way of life – from farming to education to leisure. “Spending over a decade on this project means I have been to weddings, funerals, baptisms and graduations. I have spent countless hours in family’s homes and have watched kids grow into adults and start their own families,” he says. “All of the amazing experiences I’ve had on colonies, and some sad ones too, all come from deliberately working on the project slowly over a long period and it has been the most rewarding work I’ve done.
“Allowing myself to work at my own pace has opened new threads of context and perspective into a community that has maintained a complex communal system for centuries in the face of both overt persecution and the subtle influence of mainstream society.”
This influence is what draws Smith into the project the most. “I am fascinated by how colonies are navigating the growing encroachment of the outside world while holding on to key traditions,” explains Smith, and no better is this explored than with his series specifically focusing on young people. The photographs seek to address how the Hutterite youth navigate the tension between tradition and modern living, and the boundaries and pressures that come with this. The presence of the outside world is sometimes felt and technology is embraced to varying degrees across the colonies, with some using phones for business purposes. It’s these differences that Smith aims to underline in his series, countering the narrative that it is a monolithic culture.
Aware of the outside perception of Hutterites, Smith came to the project without an agenda to further entrench notions of the communities being old-fashioned. “In the simplest terms I wanted to portray the culture truthfully and respectfully. One of the main reasons I’ve worked on this project for so long is to ensure it is as broad as possible, with a caveat that no visual documentation should be considered representative of an entire culture. Hutterite society is full of complexity and every colony has their unique aspects,” he explains. “My goal has been to produce a body of work that avoids stereotypes and one-dimensional portrayals of a community that is largely either unknown or misunderstood by the majority of mainstream society.”
The response to his project from people in the communities has ranged from indifference to support. “Some colonies and some members frown on outside attention or photographs so I respect their beliefs and don’t include them in the project. As I spend time in a colony I learn who is open to being photographed and who isn’t. No one is shy about telling me how they feel and conversations about the work are ongoing,” he says. “It’s a privilege to be allowed into these communities so it is very important to me that I am responsive and accountable to the people I photograph.”
While Hutterites may be othered by mainstream society, Smith believes that there are valuable lessons to be gleaned from their way of life. “The Hutterites represent one of the most successful models for communal living in modern western history. I think there are aspects of colony life that we in mainstream society can learn from, especially when it comes to our connections to each other and the outdoors. For all of our technology, mainstream society feels more disconnected than ever.”
The series is appearing in Coming of Age, a group show held as part of Belfast Photo Festival this month that seeks to give a multifaceted look at the journey from childhood to adulthood. Hutterites is being presented alongside work by Natalia Kepesz and Anouchka Renaud-Eck, encompassing photographic perspectives on military camps and Hindu marriage culture respectively.
Coming of Age is on display at the Botanic Gardens, Belfast until June 30; belfastphotofestival.com