Saturday, April 21, 2012
Why We Walk - Introduction
I don’t fight. Never have, really. The closest I have ever come to even defending myself with violence was when a skinhead attacked me on the bus when I was 17. Still, I never threw a punch. Some people may think I’m a coward for that. Truth be told, I come from a long line of “cowards”, who chose to walk away again and again, across four centuries and three continents. Many of them died, but many also survived with their dedication to nonresistance intact.
When I was young, my mother told me stories about the hardships experienced by our ancestors, the Russian Mennonites who lived under Stalin. A spiritual faith of any kind flew in the face of communism, so Stalin did everything he could to crush the Mennonite communities. The pacifist farmers stood up against one of the most murderous dictators of all time, with literally nothing but their values to defend them. For this, many paid a terrible price. Countless Mennonites, including members of my family, wasted away in the Gulags were exiled to Siberia or executed. Today there are unmarked mass graves of Mennonites dotted throughout Ukraine and Russia – a silent testimony to a people who chose peace to the end.
That was just one chapter of Mennonite repression. Their story has repeated itself throughout history. They were publicly tortured and executed in The Netherlands, and oppressed and forced into the military in Poland before Catherine The Great invited them to farm in Southern Russia. The Mennonites lived peacefully in Russia for 125 years before they were massacred by the Bolsheviks, the Red and White Armies, and Nazis. By 1945, most of the Mennonites fled Russia for The United States, Canada, Mexico and Paraguay. Today there are Mennonite communities scattered all over the world, with no one place to call home. While their present is peaceful, the Mennonites remain weary. They know from experience that a lot can change in a century.
I am presently traveling the migration path of the Mennonites from The Netherlands, through Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia and into Siberia. I am photographing the land and communities that they once inhabited in an effort to evoke the sacrifices and hardships that they went through to preserve their commitment to nonresistance. My personal ties to this story make the work as much of a diary as it is a photo essay. I am inviting the viewer into my experience of traveling this vast distance, searching for the lingering presence that my ancestors have left behind in these places.
It is time that we start to pay more attention to communities and civilizations that have chosen peace over violence. Today our world is wrought with conflict and our weapons now have the potential to wipe our species off of the face of the planet. It is only through peace that we will survive. By migrating across the Earth to resist violent conflict, the Mennonites have demonstrated that war is not a mandatory part of human existence – that peace is always an option. Their legacy shows us that it requires far less courage to pick up a gun than it does to stand one down.
at 4:33 AM