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Original author: 
Ian Willms

At the heart of the Mennonite religion, you’ll find an unwavering commitment to nonresistance that has endured five centuries of oppression and violent atrocities. This work is a photographic ode to an endless journey that my Mennonite ancestors undertook in the name of peace.

Right from their origins in the 16th and 17th centuries, Mennonites in the Netherlands were hunted down by the Catholic Church and publicly tortured to death because of their Christian beliefs. This prompted the Mennonites to migrate to Poland, where they remained for a century until the state began to force them into military service. In the late 18th century, the Mennonites chose to migrate again — this time to Ukraine and Russia.

On a bitterly cold winter night, in the midst of the Russian Revolution, Bolshevik soldiers arrived at my family’s doorstep. They forced 48 Mennonite men to walk from house to house at gunpoint using them as human shields as they stormed the non-Mennonite homes; my great grandfather was one of three survivors from that group. During the revolution, entire Mennonite villages were wiped off the map in nighttime massacres that saw men, women and children struck down by Bolshevik soldiers on horseback. Those who were able to escape with their lives would return to their villages the following day to bury their neighbours and families in unmarked mass graves before beginning new lives as refugees. Throughout their history, the Mennonites have been repeatedly faced with the same decision: Take up arms and abandon your faith, leave your home behind and give up everything you have worked for in your life, or die where you stand.

In 2012, I decided to re-trace the refugee migrations of the Mennonites to witness the places where they lived and died. I followed their historical journey through The Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Ukraine, photographing the communities, farmland, execution sites and mass graves that had been left behind. The path on which I traveled emulated the nomadic history of the Mennonites, while I searched for a feeling of familiarity and a connection to the former homes of my distant relatives. In most places along the migration route, the lingering presence of the Mennonites was little more than a collection of memories; a pockmarked gravestone; the mossy foundations of a farmhouse; a group of blurry faces, locked away in a history textbook. I found myself sifting through peaceful cow pastures and rural villages, seeking the ghosts of unimaginable heartbreak and tragedy.

The process of carrying out this work took an emotional toll, but the experience taught me to admire the Mennonites for their immense personal sacrifices. The Mennonites gave up community, prosperity and even faced death because they believed in the statement of nonresistance. I feel that if the places in these photographs could speak, they would tell us that hostilities brought against pacifist peoples are more than an injustice; they are an attack upon the hope for peace within our world.

Ian Willms is a photographer based in Toronto. He is currently represented by Getty Images Emerging Talent.

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This fall, Amsterdam—known for its innovative photo community— will welcome a new photography festival to its Dutch district. Called Unseen, the festival hopes to be a festival that, well, viewers have never seen before, with a focus on new and emerging talent as well as an aim to showcase never-before-seen work from established favorites including Richard Avedon, Steven Klein, Helmut Newton and Edward Steichen, among others.

Taking place from Sept. 19-23 at Amsterdam’s Westergasfabriek, the fair comprises more than 50 galleries hailing from around the world. With photography from places as diverse as Japan and New York, Dubai and Finland, the scope of the work will range from documentary to conceptual to experimental. Highlights include Miles Aldridge’s Immaculee #3 (Red Madonna), 2012, which reaffirms the long standing relationship between photography and iconographic painting, but pushes the boundary of what we expect as a viewer by asking the virgin figure to maintain eye contact and acknowledge the image maker. Also of interest is Zanzibar, 2010, by Chloe Sells. The American photographer explores the idea of land and nostalgia through her experimental darkroom C-prints. Colorful and graphic with bold colors and strong shapes, yet abstract and ambiguous, her images inspire thoughts of place and placelessness.

While there are many photography fairs around the world, Unseen works to offer a few additions to the typical fair. There will be a collection of affordable photographs, all priced under 1,000 euro (approximately $1280), to both help young photographers reach a new audience, as well as allow the young collector, or photography appreciator to invest in affordable work. And for the book connoisseur, Offprint Amsterdam will be at the fair, curating a new collection of self published and limited edition books.

You can learn more about the galleries featured and the day-to-day events here. Unseen is a project initiated by Foam, Platform A and Vandejong.

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