In 2012 and 2013, I re-traced the refugee migrations of my Mennonite ancestors to witness the places where they lived and died. I followed their historical journey through The Netherlands, Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Siberia, photographing the communities, churches, 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 was an intensely emotional process; my train rolled down the same rails that my ancestors did when they were sent to die in the Gulags; I stood in the grassy meadows where they were shot and burned by men with hatred in their eyes; I intentionally brought myself into this grief in order to express the centuries of merciless oppression, endured by silent victims. In the end, I found fractured pockets of once-thriving Russian Mennonite communities in isolated villages in Siberia. One Russian Mennonite historian said to me, “”It is as if they have been wiped from the Earth.”
Ian Willms is a documentary photographer whose photographic practice resides within the gulf between journalism and contemporary art. Willms strives to communicate the emotional environment surrounding his subjects through a poetic, methodical approach to making pictures. From the baking highways of the American Southwest, to the frozen railways of Siberia, Ian has photographed the narratives of disempowered peoples, wounded environments and forgotten cultures. Over the last four years, Ian has been exploring the impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands boom, being felt within the remote Indigenous communities of Northern Alberta. His most recent project is a photographic ode to his pacifist Mennonite ancestors, who endured five centuries of violent oppression throughout Europe and Russia.
Ian is part of the Global Assignment by Getty Images roster and is a founding member of the Boreal Collective. He is loosely based in Toronto.