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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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Viviane Sassen’s gorgeous, inscrutable fine art images from Africa have earned her acclaim and a place in the Museum of Modern Art. But recently, her surreal and equally beautiful fashion photography has been garnering attention, too: in 2011, Sassen won the prestigious International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Applied/Fashion/Advertising Photography, and more than 300 of her fashion images are on view at Amsterdam’s Huis Marseille Museum for Photography through mid-March 2013 in a show titled, Viviane Sassen / In and Out of Fashion.

Born in Amsterdam, Sassen lived in Kenya — where her father worked in a polio clinic — between the ages of 2 and 5. Because the continent looms so large in her work, I asked her to describe her earliest memories from Africa.

“I remember,” she told me, “how Rispa, our nanny, woke me up one early morning and took me to a deserted football field to pick small white mushrooms. I remember the taste of sugarcane and ugali [a dish similar to polenta], orange Fanta and the bloody goat heads in the market in Kisumu.”

Returning to the Netherlands was difficult for her: “I didn’t feel I belonged in Europe, yet I knew I was a foreigner in Africa.”

As a young woman, Sassen enrolled in a university fashion design program and also modeled. Recalling her modeling work, she says that she “can relate to how a girl might feel in front of a camera: sometimes bored, tired or simply stressed or insecure. And then the shoes … three sizes too small but with killer heels. It’s not always fun to be a model.”

Nevertheless, she says she “got to know a lot of photographers; they made me aware that they controlled the image. That’s what I wanted, too; I wanted to be in control of the image … to create it.”

Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen

Sassen made the leap into photography. She recalls that “in the beginning, [photographers] like Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki [were] very important for my work because of their formal language, but also because they depicted their own lives in a way that appealed to me.”

A turning point in her own photography came in 2002 when she returned to Africa with her husband. The fine art photography she has made there in the past decade shines as some of the most original, unexpected work to emerge from the continent by a Western photographer. But one finds no victims of war or famine here; instead, the viewer confronts contemporary Africans engaged in sophisticated, if mysterious, dream performances.

“Working in Africa opens doors of my subconscious,” Sassen explains. “Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning after very vivid dreams or if I just suddenly have an idea, I sketch. My photographs are sometimes almost literal pictures of these sketches.” At other times, she says, “I might just find something on the street that excites me.”

Her images are somehow primal and hallucinatory at once: two youths embrace in the dark, a giant banana leaf sprouting between them; a figure lies nestled in the diaphanous green cloud of a fishing net; a boy lounges on the ground, his limbs painted bright turquoise. Critic Vince Aletti says that Sassen “tends to treat the body as a sculptural element—a malleable shape that combines with blocks of shadow and bright color in arrangements that sometimes read like cut-paper collages, bold and abstract but full of vibrant life.”

One key part of the body that is often missing or obscured is the human face, as models turn away from the camera or appear with their faces cloaked in shadow. As Aaron Schuman noted in Aperture, the images might thus “appear to ignore the individuals they portray and instead inherently possess—maybe even propagate—the problematic histories, legacies, and relationships between Africa and the West. But perhaps in Sassen’s case this is the point, at least in part, and where the power of her photographs lies.”

Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen

Within these mirror-like voids, Sassen allows the viewer to reflect on the clichés and prejudices Westerners so often fall back on when engaging the vast continent and its inhabitants.

“I want to seduce the viewer with a beautiful formal approach,” says Sassen, “and at the same time, leave something disturbing.”

Sassen’s fashion work borrows much from her fine art—obscured faces, extraordinary color. The acute graphic sensibility of Sassen’s fine art, meanwhile, works wonders in magazine spreads. In an elemental way, though, the museum show and Sassen’s images (made for magazines like Wallpaper, Purple and Dazed & Confused, and for brands like Levi’s and Stella McCartney) don’t make sense at all.

As Sassen told the British Journal of Photography in its December 2012 issue, “I find exhibitions of fashion photography within the context of a museum rather problematic. Most fashion images aren’t art, they’re fashion photographs—which is fine, but if you put them in a museum, enlarged and in a frame, they become something else…. Art photography doesn’t have to serve any purpose, fashion photography does, and that makes a difference…. [Then] there are images which are really between art and fashion, which I hope I do myself.”

Sassen hit upon a solution to this conundrum: projecting fashion images on museum walls, so the work retains a “kind of disposable feel.” Furthermore, Sassen has said she doesn’t care much about clothes. “My interest is not the interest of the fashion industry. My interest is to make fascinating pictures…. It’s always about desire and fear, about making images that are both appealing and unsettling.”

Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen

Nevertheless, Sassen says she loves the “swiftness of fashion” as opposed to the “contemplated process of making art.” I asked her about the difference between shooting for magazines and shooting for advertisements.

“What I like about fashion magazines is that they create a platform to experiment and to work closely with people who can be super inspiring. I call it my laboratory. [It] should be like an adventure; not knowing where your play will lead you. When you’re working on fashion campaigns for a commercial brand it’s often much less experimental, but still creative in the sense that you have to match the pieces of a puzzle.”

Sassen has used a computer to retouch some of her images, but mostly avoids it. “I think that something beautiful is even more charming when it’s not too perfect. You don’t want to feel the artificiality of the image, you want to believe in it. I feel related to reality, while slick images feel exchangeable.”

Sassen’s lifelong interest in Africa — and her ongoing explorations of her own subconscious — have contributed to some of the most riveting fashion photography being made today. For a photographer rooted in (or, as she puts it, “related to”) reality, her magazine work is a revelation.

See more of Sassen’s work at VivianeSassen.com.

Myles Little is an associate photo editor at TIME.

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The trailer for Seventeen director Hisko Hulsing’s new short Junkyard excites the senses with solid character animation, rich environments, and a cinematic quality. Can’t wait to see the whole thing.

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The thread that links much of the Dutch photographer Bertien van Manen’s work is her portrayal of the seemingly small, undramatic moments of everyday life.

It might be a photograph of friends sitting and sharing a drink or a deceptively simple photograph of a family snapshot sitting on a bureau, but the weight of much of her imagery lays in the perception of a connection her subjects. Van Manen’s professional beginnings were in fashion but after a photographer friend introduced her to the photographs of Robert Frank and other artists, she pursued a more personal direction with her work. “Both Robert Frank and Nan Goldin have inspired me, especially the directness and closeness to the subject they have. I have to like the people I photograph,” she has said. The seemingly casual language of her photographs stems from her use of automatic, non-professional cameras. “Traveling with expensive Leicas or Nikons in Russia at that time was asking for trouble,” she says. “They considered my cameras as toys… and they did not feel threatened by them, they considered me as a tourist or friend, who liked to take pictures.” What might be seen at first to be “flaws” to the images—a light leak bleeding in from an edge, imperfect focusing or flash burn from the on-camera flash—give way to the perception of Manen’s impulses to grab at what she sees before her, physically hold it, or more accurately as felt in the pictures, to embrace it.

For her first book, A Hundred Summers A Hundred Winters, published in 1994, van Manen traveled all over the former Soviet Union for more than three years photographing daily life. “I did not focus on poverty,” she says. “But the average living conditions are, of course, poorer than in the West. On the other hand I did not try to show happiness and lightheartedness where it does not exist.” Looking past the living conditions, one notices much of what is happening in van Manen’s images takes place in the sitting rooms, bedrooms or over kitchen tables where people gather to talk or get to know one another. The photos exude warmth, without judgment and with a keen eye for the unexpectedly beautiful. In one photograph from Kazakhstan, a perfectly stacked pyramid of silver metal bowls left to dry on a kitchen counter mimic the tiles on the wall behind. In another from Moldavia, golden brown loaves of bread line sets of white shelves while a man in uniform and Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder seems to stand guard.

Van Manen’s 2006 book Give Me Your Image focused her attention on family photographs she discovered in homes she visited while traveling in Europe. She photographed them where they were found or at times would place them among other objects creating impromptu still-lifes. “It was exciting to walk through the homes with a portrait, looking for the perfect place to put it,” she said. “I tried not to think and just follow my intuition. This sometimes gave surprising results, like the lady in Rome, who started crying when I put the image of her dead son in a corner, in front of a little cabinet that he always had treasured and that was all she still had of him.”

Bertien van Manen’s latest book, Let’s Sit Down Before We Go, published by Mack Books, is a collaboration of sorts. Titled after the habit of having Russians sit for a moment before a long journey to think about where they will be going and why, van Manen’s book came into being after a lengthy pause of its own. After revisiting some of the contact sheets from her work from the former Soviet Union shot between 1991 and 2009, van Manen sent some scans of a new edit of images to the British photographer Stephen Gill for his opinion. Gill in turn asked to see all of the raw material represented on the 500+ contact sheets and proceeded to make not only a selection of pictures but sequence them as well. Van Manen trusted his instincts. “I decided to stay with his selection and sequence, happy with the dynamic yet subtle repetition and rhythm of images and the combination of colors,” he says. “They are in complete accordance with my idea about the content of the album.”

Gill’s edit favors many images that were left on the contact sheets due to unsharpness or overexposure and in preparing the images for the book they were not corrected, in fact much the opposite. “Stephen had encouraged us to push to extreme results,” van Bertien says. “I was there for some days in the Lake District, with Rob Sara in his darkroom, while he was printing these images. For instance, working on the second print in the book, we held back the face of the baby even more.” The results leave the baby almost without detail – a glowing mass upended and swinging from a man’s arms.

When van Manen speaks of her books, she uses the word “album” frequently. An album, a family album in particular, makes little claim for aspiring to great art. Its purpose seems to be our desire to access memory, history, personal feelings (both good and bad) and perhaps even serve as proof of our existences. There is a shorthand of language in the gestures, faces that can be universal even if we do not know who is in the picture. Her work seems familiar because it is art that slyly poses as photographs that could sit alongside our own memories in such an album. It is such that we can feel the gift of the company Bertien van Manen keeps.

Let’s Sit Down Before We Go was recently published by Mack Books.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.

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