Jake Michaels photographs capture life in Belize’s Mennonite colonies.

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Jake Michaels’ photographs show old American Midwest scenes, with homesteads dominating a pastoral landscape and families living by candlelight. Men in straw hats ride horse-drawn carriages. His photographs are not only digital, but they were also taken in Belize hundreds of miles away.

Around 12,000 Mennonites from Central America live in the tiny country. They are a small group of Christians who prefer to live in closed communities, and do not use electricity. The Protestant sect is a remnant of 16th-century Europe. Its members have moved around the globe to find isolated farms and escape persecution.

Belize’s colonies date back to 1950, when a group comprised of More than 3,000From Mexico, Canadian Mennonites emigrated to Belize. They arrived in Belize after a deal with the Belizean government that provided them land, religious freedom, and exemption from certain taxes (as committed pacifists)

They have enjoyed the benefits of their agriculture. Today, Belize’s dairy and poultry markets are dominated by Mennonites, even though they make up less than 4%.

The photo shows a husband and wife standing outside their home with only the lush vegetation hinting to the surprising location of the photo: Belize. Jake Michaels, photographer, said that seventy-five percent could be presented in such a way that you wouldn’t know they were the tropics. Credit: Jake Michaels/Courtesy Setanta Books

Michaels traveled to three Mennonite colonies located in Belize’s northern region, Indian Creek, Shipyard, and Little Belize, hoping to capture their traditional way of living. He was surprised at their openness to strangers, despite their apparent fear of outsiders.

He said that people were more welcoming than I expected and that everyone was understanding, even though my Spanish isn’t that good.” He explained that Plautdietsch is the group’s mother tongue, but that many speak Belizean Spanish.

“A lot of my time was spent with no camera in my hand.” It was all about interactivity, socializing, and getting to know people before photography even happens.

Stuck in Time

Michaels was able to spend time in Mennonites family homes and on expansive farmland. He discovered a world frozen into time, an idea that is reflected in his new book. Book, “c.1950”). The photographs show a happy life that is centered around family, and without the modern trappings.

“My entire practice changed as the days went by. My mind was slower and I felt more in the environment.” He added, “I don’t mean to suggest that their lives are easy, but it allowed me to slow down.

Belize's Mennonites still travel by horse and cart.

Belize’s Mennonites still use horse and cart to travel. Credit: Jake Michaels/Courtesy Setanta Books

However, the photographer was cautious about romanticizing this way of life.

Belize’s Mennonites, who are permitted to manage their own schools, have literacy rates that are significantly lower compared with other ethnic groups in the country. Just 5%Complete formal secondary education. Most of the communities are dependent on commercial agriculture. The colonies are organized around family and religion as well as labor.

These economic realities are captured by Michaels. They show Mennonites sorting beans inside a dimly-lit room, or in plastic aprons at the papaya packing factory. Another image shows men at a nearby auction, and smoke rising into the sky as land is cleared for agriculture.

Michaels stated that “Their world is interconnected with the modern world far more than before.” There are many Mennonites working in tandem with Belizean people so that they’re aware and informed about the outside world.

Mennonites, pictured here sorting beans, rely on commercial agriculture, despite their isolation from wider Belizean society.

Mennonites, seen here sorting beans in commercial agriculture, despite being isolated form the wider Belizean community. Credit: Jake Michaels/Courtesy Setanta Books

The photographer stated that “there are both good and bad things in life.” “At the end, people still make a living…people still have jobs. “It was important to show the full spectrum of life.

A picture of contrasts

As Mennonites elsewhere in Belize, the colonies also have progressive and conservative members. This results in a variety of attitudes to technology. Unexpectedly, Michaels occasionally includes electronic gadgets such as cellphones and cameras in his photos.

He uses this contrast to great effect. The image below shows a young woman wearing traditional clothes, and pointing her small digital camera at Michaels’ lens. This photo was one of his favorites from the entire trip.

“Everything about this photo seems like it’s from the 1950s. But then, she has a modern camera in hand.” He explained that the gradual creeping technology wasn’t necessarily perceived as a threat. “They are far away in the rolling hills and hills of Belize so it’s unlikely that there are (competing lives).

Consumer electronics make occasional appearances in Michaels' photographs. "Technology exists there," he said. "It's not a complete bubble."

Michaels occasionally photographs consumer electronics. “Technology is there,” he stated. It’s not a complete bubble. Credit: Jake Michaels/Courtesy Setanta Books

Michaels hasn’t had to give up technology, but the experience has made a lasting impression in his photography.

He said, “It certainly impacted how I shoot going forward.” It made me more social and interactive with people than just taking pictures.

c.1950Setanta Books has published “The Book of the Dead” and it is now available.