Jake Michaels: C. 1950

The LA-based photographer talks us through his captivating series documenting the Mennonites of Belize

In the late 1950s, when the first Mennonites arrived in the Caribbean country of Belize, they did so with one main intention: to live without influence from the outside world. They moved to be undisturbed, continuing customs in farming and agriculture – growing crops like potatoes, corn, tomatoes, watermelons, papaya and more. Some have also said that, in recent years, the German Mennonites in Belize produce over 85% of poultry and dairy products in the country. They are also known for their skills in carpentry, traditional clothing and language; a vast majority speak Plautdietsch, while some speak Pennsylvania German, English and Belzean Spanish.

Jake Michaels, a photographer based in Los Angeles, first came to learn of the Mennonites of Belize as he was working on a series for The New York Times, looking at the culture of dress worldwide. “I had a few images of Mennonites from northern Mexico saved in my reference folder,” he tells me. This sparked a few conversations with other photographers around the topic, and before long he was introduced to the community. In 2018, C. 1950 was borne – a documentary project that turns an honest and respectful lens onto its people and age-old traditions amidst an increasingly modernising world. Here, I chat to Jake learn more about the series, now published by Setanta Books.

What did you learn about the Mennonites of Belize; did you know much about this community beforehand? 

I had some knowledge beforehand of the Mennonite culture as I did not want to arrive and assume anything about them. I focused on the Mennonites because I found their traditional dress and culture captivating in the juxtaposition of a jungle setting.  

What was the process like while photographing this project, where did you visit and stay? 

Although my time was brief, it was very impactful on my work and my process going forward. I slept in a hotel about an hour away from the villages because that was the closest lodging to the community. I found that removing myself from the surroundings allowed my mind to reflect on the day and make better images the next. 

After gaining access to the community’s families, was it hard to gain trust, or were they open to being photographed?

I had conversations with each family and the pastor from the villages. I feel the people’s engagement was just as meaningful as the photos themselves. Everyone I encountered was very hospitable and open to the project.

Did you spend much time getting to know your subjects, or were you more of an observer?

Every family was a different experience. Some I played games with, looked over books with, or just shared a meal. Photographing a community like this, it is essential to share as much as they give.  

Can you share any stories from working on the project?

One of the most impactful parts of the project was my ability to be present and not looking towards the next shot, engaging in the present instead. With the pace of my normal day-to-day, it was essential for the work to be present.

One of the experiences that stood out in my mind, was when one of the families I had a Saturday night meal with gave me their horse and buggy to try out. Without any guidance or hesitation, they said, ‘here you go’, and handed me the reigns. The horse knew what to do, so that took the pressure away. The experience of driving the horse through the dirt road gave me a brief glimpse of their point of view, and gave me a better sense of the visual landscape. 

What’s your main goal with c.1950?

My main goal was to create a body of work that reflected what I had seen in the project, and document the Mennonite people and their culture as we all become more of a global society. 

Photography courtesy of Jake Michaels