CNN Photos

Bolivia’s isolated Mennonite community

Photographer Jordi Ruiz Cirera first visited Bolivia in 2011 after hearing about a religious community occupying the province of Santa Cruz.

Little did he know, he would be back a year later to continue telling the story of the Mennonite people, expanding on what started as a master’s program project.

“I felt attracted to these people and needed to learn more about them,” Cirera says.

They are Christian Anabaptists whose families fled Germany around the 16th century to escape religious persecution and eventually settled in South America.

Commonly referred to as Menonos, they separate themselves from other locals to preserve their ancestral lifestyle. They maintain a humble existence in self-made communities and don’t divulge in modern tools such as telephones, electricity or cars.

It is hard to determine the exact number of Menonos living in Bolivia because many of them have foreign citizenship and are undocumented, Cirera says.

He chose to photograph the Mennonite community after a close friend told him about their distinct religious customs and living arrangements.

Other photographers before Cirera have captured the Mennonite lifestyle. Larry Towell, Eunice Adorno and Lisa Wiltse all have their own renditions.

At first the pictures didn’t come as easy as Cirera hoped they would.

He says the biggest obstacle to overcome was the language barrier; they spoke a German dialect he wasn’t familiar with.

He also had to request permission from each individual family he was photographing. Some were open to the idea while others refused due to their religious beliefs that prohibited them from having their pictures taken.

Cirera says the members that refused called it an unacceptable act of pride.

During his time in Bolivia, Cirera had the opportunity to create relationships with some of the members of the tightknit community.

“Once I gained their confidence and trust, taking their photos came easy,” he says.

A normal day for Cirera during his stay in Santa Cruz meant waking up early and following the Menonos through their daily chore.

He says there were clearly defined gender roles in the traditional households. The women would sew clothes, visit local shops or stay in the home and look after the children. Men would tend to the farm animals and the rest of their property.

Overall, Cirera took more than 2,000 photographs in the span of one month. He says that isn’t much for a professional photographer, but due to the limitations of the community and their religious beliefs, he was unable to take more.

“I wish I had more time,” he says. “The longer you stay with people, the better the shots.”

- Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN