Clicking with colony culture Manitoba photographer’s bond with Hutterite community leads to global exposure
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It’s amazing what can result from an open mind and a bit of happenstance.
Photographer Tim Smith was driving in the western Manitoba countryside in 2009, looking for feature photo opportunities for the Brandon Sun, when he met some young Hutterite women gardening.
They were from the Deerboine Colony northwest of Brandon, and Smith took some pictures of them, with their permission, and then they surprised him when they asked if they could take pictures of him too, pulling flip phones from their pockets.
This act of sharing began years of friendship and understanding between Smith and many people who live at Hutterite colonies in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
“At the time I knew nothing about Hutterites myself, other than seeing them occasionally growing up in Winnipeg. I knew nothing about their culture and society,” Smith says. “I was surprised they were even carrying cellphones, which was due to my ignorance, and that really intrigued me and stopped me in my tracks — ‘You really know nothing about this culture.’
“I wanted to know more, and so I kept going back.”
Smith’s visits to more than two-dozen Hutterite colonies in Manitoba and meeting the people who live there have led to branching out his career from an award-winning photojournalist to also an artist who shares giant prints in exhibitions at museums and exhibitions around the world.
“I’m not surprised in the interest in Hutterite society. I am surprised that it’s my work. This is absolutely not what I expected when I started the project,” Smith says of In the World But Not Of It, an exhibition of photographs of Hutterite people and culture that opens Friday at the MHC Gallery at Canadian Mennonite University.
“I don’t consider myself an expert in Hutterite culture. They are the experts in their culture and telling their story and I have the privilege to be allowed in and make these pictures that I hope are a gateway for people who might be curious about what their society is like,” he says.
In the World But Not Of It was to be on display at the MHC Gallery in the summer of 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to its postponement. Since then, however, Smith’s show and his other photographic views of Hutterite life have been on display in galleries and museums across Canada, throughout Europe, South Korea and, next year, Australia.
A permanent display of Smith’s photos has also been installed at a Hutterite museum in Sobotište, Slovakia, where Hutterites have settled for centuries.
The Hutterian Brethren are a communal sect of Anabaptist followers once led by Jacob Hutter in Austria. They began moving to the Canadian Prairies in 1918, seeking refuge from persecution.
There are more than 10,000 Hutterites living at 110 colonies in Manitoba, according to the 2016 Census. They have become a major part of the Prairies’ agricultural economy, and have recently branched out into manufacturing.
The colonies are self-sustaining, with men doing the farm work for food while women do domestic duties such as cooking, cleaning and sewing for dozens of colony members.
Their clothes are usually homemade and their appearance sometimes creates curious looks from those unfamiliar with their ways when they visit towns and cities to sell their produce, or when they go shopping.
The Hutterites’ willingness to keep to themselves has led to many assumptions from those outside their world, Smith says. Like everyone, each Hutterite community is different from the next.
“There’s actually a lot of variety and complexity in terms of how conservative and liberal the colonies are, especially when it comes to image-taking and things like that,” Smith says. “My work has required a lot of time, building relationships and trust. I also know when to take a ‘No’ for a ‘No,’ and I get to know who’s not interested in having their photo taken, and I respect that.”
Unlike Amish people, a similar communal Anabaptist sect that forgoes technology and whose horse-drawn carriages use the same roads as automobiles in the United States and Canada, Hutterites have welcomed mechanization and operate state-of-the-art agricultural equipment, drive automobiles and own certain items that have become ubiquitous in today’s society, including cellphones.
That’s how Smith made his connection with the Hutterite women, who were as keen to learn about him as he was to learn about them.
“There’s also been a lot of change over the last 13 years,” he says. “In 2009, when I started the project… we all didn’t have cameras in our back pockets. Now everyone has a camera on them, even on the colonies, and I think that has eased things a little bit, how comfortable people are with imagery, because we’re so inundated by it now.”
Smith says many of his photographs in In the World But Not Of It focus on young people and the lives they lead. Young men on colonies tend livestock and work in the fields with their fathers or other elders, much like how many rural teenagers learn the ropes on the farm from their parents.
Young women in a colony do the same with the roles women perform, learning about cooking, sewing, gardening and cleaning, often for dozens of people at a time.
Religion unites a colony’s families, and one of Smith’s photo shows an elder leading youngsters in prayer before a meal.
Others show youngsters enjoying time away from chores and school, whether it’s riding a horse or playing football.
Smith’s relationships with Hutterite people have also provided him with lessons on the art world, which began in 2016 with his first exhibition of Hutterite photographs at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon.
His art career has taken off since then, all the while maintaining his photojournalism career with the Brandon Sun. His latest accolade came in July when he was named the open call artist of the year at the Donggong Photo Festival in South Korea, which led to a solo exhibition there.
“They invited me to the opening, which was absolutely phenomenal,” he says. “Politicians and singers… it was a really surreal experience. I couldn’t believe I could take part in it.”
While watching worldwide audiences learn about Hutterite culture and finding a connection with people who live a different way through his photography is gratifying, Smith continues to appreciate the support from Hutterite people who visit his exhibitions, like the one opening in Winnipeg on Friday.
“I try to be clear to everyone that their consent and their comfort with my work is an ongoing conversation. I want to be respectful of the people I photograph,” Smith says.
“It means a lot to me when members of the community can make it out to the exhibitions and I get to see their comments in the guestbooks. It’s really important to me that they think I got the work right.”
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.
In the World But Not Of It
By Tim Smith
● MHU Gallery, Canadian Mennonite University, 610 Shaftesbury Blvd.
● Opens Friday, to Nov. 12
Updated on Monday, September 12, 2022 8:40 AM CDT: Removes repeated phrase