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Ian Willms

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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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Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Fort McKay: Sleeping With The Devil

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For thousands of years the Cree and Dene people of the Athabasca River in Northern Alberta have watched, as the tarry sands along their banks oozed into the river and stuck to their feet.

In the 1950s Premier Earnest Manning was devising a plan to detonate an atomic bomb underground, in an attempt to extract these difficult deposits of oil. At that time the Reserve of Fort McKay, situated 63 km North of Fort McMurray, had no roads connecting it to the rest of Canada. They lived from a traditional lifestyle of hunting and trapping, but as 83-year-old elder Zackary Powder says, it’s not like it used to be, everything has changed.

Today the worlds largest and most environmentally destructive oil extraction project, the Alberta Oil Sands, surround them. Where trappers cabins once stood are now toxic lakes of mine tailings, and endless moonscapes that have been stripped of their bitumen-laced sand with electric shovels five stories high.

Aware to the futility of resistance, the people of Fort McKay decided to partner with industry in 1986. Entrepreneurial endeavors, employment and industry compensations have provided economic prosperity the likes of which few Canadian First Nations have experienced. It is said to be the richest reserve in Canada, but the people here know their prosperity is not without consequence. As elder and former Syncrude electrician Norman Simpson says, sometimes you have to sleep with the Devil.

Stories of moose hunts and life in the bush are told with enthusiasm and pride, but, as industry grows, the land succumbs. The rivers and fish are poisoned, their tap water is no longer potable, the animals are keeping their distance, and the quality of wild meat is in question. Cancer, respiratory disease, drug addiction and other illnesses plague the community. In a country where the norm for reserves is high poverty, unemployment and dismal housing, Fort McKay is marketed as a success story, but the people here know the truth is much more complicated.

 

Bio

Aaron Vincent Elkaim (b.1981) is a documentary photographer, whose work has earned international recognition.

Aaron received a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Film Studies in his hometown of Winnipeg, Canada, before he found photography.

Currently based in Toronto, Aaron approaches his subjects through an anthropological lens with a focus on cultural and historical narratives that reflect and inform his own sense of the world. Though born of individual experience, Aaron’s work seeks to provide its audience with new and varied perspectives on the complexities of humanity and its environment.

His work has been exhibited at Fotographia International Photography Festival in Rome, Voices Off Rencontres d’Arles, the NY Photo Festival, and the Reportage Photography Festival in Australia. His Clients include the Globe and Mail, The Canadian Press, and the Wall Street Journal.

Aaron is a founding member of the Boreal Collective.

 

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Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Boreal Collective

 

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EPF 2012 Finalist

 

Ian Willms

Fort Chipewyan

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If anyone would listen, the First Nations peoples in Fort Chipewyan, Canada, would tell them about an ongoing ‘slow motion cultural genocide’. The isolated indigenous reserves of Northern Alberta are watching their land become unlivable as their communities are slowly poisoned by the world’s largest and most environmentally destructive oil extraction project.

The Alberta Oil Sands are the second largest oil reserves on Earth next to Saudi Arabia and are worth an estimated $1 trillion to Canada’s GDP over the next decade. This oil extraction involves an energy-intensive process of strip-mining and chemical upgrading. The liquid waste from Oil Sands production ends up in man-made tar lakes that are large enough to be visible from space. The Oil Sands have a larger carbon footprint than any other commercial oil product on Earth.

As the world entered the era of Peak Oil in 2003, Canada saw a dramatic boom in Oil Sands production. Since then, contaminated water systems, deformed fish, oil spills and alarmingly high rates of aggressive and fatal cancers have become part of life for the indigenous peoples of Northern Alberta. Industrial activity has all but wiped out the traditional economies of First Nations communities in the area. An important part of my work is to communicate how these problems now prevent people from sustaining themselves off of the land that has nurtured their lives for generations.

This work speaks to the disturbing truth that has been lost in a climate of misinformation. As part of their ‘Ethical Oil’ campaign, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) diligently publicizes industry-funded research and statistics that downplay or negate the environmental and health impacts of Oil Sands production. Meanwhile, First Nations peoples continue to lose their land, culture and lives. The Canadian government and the CAPP have made an individual and collective life expendable in the name of energy security and economic progress.

 

Bio

Born in 1985, in Kitchener, Canada, Ian Willms is an independent documentary photographer and a founding member of the Boreal Collective.

His curious and socially conscious nature has driven Ian to explore the fringes of our society, photographing abandoned environments and the people who inhabit them. From the depressed, post-apocalyptic suburbs of Detroit to the poisoned shorelines of Fort Chipewyan, Ian’s work is deeply rooted in the discussion of consumption, classism and social and political power struggles.

Ian’s work has been exhibited in North America and Europe, including solo exhibitions at Pikto Gallery and Gallery 44 Centre For Contemporary Photography and group exhibitions at O’Born Contemporary and Bau-Xi Photo. His work has also been supported and honoured by the Magnum Expression Photography Award, the National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism competition, the Magenta Foundation and the Ontario Arts Council.

 

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