Lisa Wiltse Statement
Roughly 150 kilometers northeast of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, the Manitoba colony’s 2,000 residents maintain the lifestyle of their Dutch ancestors, who established the first Mennonite settlement in Russia in 1789. Since then, Old Colony Mennonites have moved throughout the New World in search of arable land and cultural sovereignty: first to Manitoba in the late 19th century, then to Mexico in the mid-1920s, after Canada required their children to attend government-approved schools.
Three decades later, a conservative splinter sect arrived in Bolivia, which, like other host nations, gained skilled agriculturalists in return for its tolerance; the country’s approximately 60,000 Mennonites produce much of its soy crop and dairy products. The Mennonites — whose Anabaptist denomination takes its name from Menno Simons, a 16th-century priest — owe their prosperity to strict social discipline and traditions closely guarded against surrounding influences. Modern conveniences are avoided. Children study only High German, math, and religion. Around puberty, they leave to join their fathers in the fields and factories, or their mothers at home and hearth. Other forms of work are forbidden to women, who speak Low German and are discouraged from learning Spanish, unlike men, who travel to Santa Cruz for trade.
Over the past decade, girls and women of all ages would occasionally wake up naked and sore; they often blamed their husbands, or the devil.
Tacit suspicions were confirmed in 2009, when it was discovered that a gang of men had drugged and raped between 60 and 140 women (reports vary). Eight men were initially handed over to the police, rupturing the insularity on which the community’s identity hinges.
Some have called the incidents a wake-up call for Mennonites to address the poverty, lack of education, and denial of women's dignity in the closed, patriarchal structure of Old Colony Mennonite society. Some say the scandal is little more than an enlargement of the social problems, in which more energy is put into hiding them than confronting and solving them. These events struck a chord with me and have sparked a compassionate interest in the lives of female Mennonites beyond these tragic events.
When I visited the colony of Manitoba December 2009, a tension pervaded the colony, although life continued as it had for centuries. Residents rose early for long days of labor, resting on Sundays at church and at gender-segregated parties. The men I encountered were hospitable but wary, and the women were reluctant to pose for photographs; since many Manitobans blamed the rapes on external forces, they were even more distrustful of the outside world. But their younger sisters and daughters were less cautious. By the end of my stay, girls who had once covered their faces at the sight of my camera confronted the lens, smiling communicatively even though they couldn’t speak my language.
I am a documentary photographer, working in the broad field of social and cultural study, with an emphasis on socially disadvantaged communities and ways of living. Central to my practice are the artistic principles of narrative, emotive resonance and overall aesthetic appeal brought about through the study of light, color and composition. It is from this place that I produce my work, rather than simply through intent to document.
Photography is a passport to other worlds. Being a privileged person, I want to understand the life of those less privileged. Being a female I want to try to understand the hardships of women. Being a humanist, I want to understand and consequently shine a light on the plight of suffering children. It is this desire to experience and try to understand things other than what I know that informs my work.
As a documentary photographer, I believe my role is to be fully present, aware and patient while studying the way people interact with one another in with their environment.
I am always seeking stories that are out of the international media spotlight. It is important for me to highlight social issues because it challenges my own perceptions on how I live and in effect, how we as humans live. The only way for me to gain a greater understanding is to go deeper into all facets of society.
I choose my camera equipment according to the possibilities and limitations of the context I am working in. My camera has to fit the project rather than the project fitting the camera. I don’t want to get fixed to any one style: for me, every project brings a new esthetic approach to explore.
There is a degree of influence as a photographer but I prefer my stories to unfold naturally without setting up or controlling the scene capturing lives as best I can with as much compassion as I can. Life is perfect in all its imperfections, chaos and subtle simplicity.