lisa wiltse – the mennonites of manitoba, bolivia

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Lisa Wiltse

The Mennonites of Manitoba, Bolivia

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The Tranquility of the Mennonite settlement of Manitoba in eastern Bolivia was transformed into fear and confusion when, this past June, suspicions were confirmed that at least 100 women and girls were raped by members of their community. The accused, ranging in age from 18 to 41 years old, targeted the women in the community’s homes. They sprayed a narcotic substance that rendered the women unconscious and then raped them. Now many teenage victims fear they are unable to marry because the Mennonite community requires that its women remain virgins until marriage in order to retain the respect of their peers. These events have shaken this conservative colony to its core. Manitoba is located about 152 kilometers (94 miles) northeast of the city of Santa Cruz with a population of about 3,000. Horse-drawn buggies, farmhouses with manicured lawns and fields planted to the horizon with soybeans and sorghum. Mennonites have tended to lead quiet, dedicated, religiously inspired lives. They are known for their espousal of non-violence. Their European features and distinctive clothes separate them from other Bolivians. The Mennonites settled in eastern Bolivia’s farmlands more than 50 years ago. They came from Mennonite colonies in Canada, Russia, Mexico, Belize and Paraguay, looking for a better life. They live simply, dress plainly and refuse to use many modern conveniences. They trace their spiritual ancestry to a 16th century European preacher named Menno Simons, whose followers became known as Mennonites. Today, some 60,000 Mennonites call Bolivia their home. Their colonies are broad expanses of land given to them by the Bolivian government. This is where they live and work, sheltered by the government’s promise of freedom of religion, exemption from military service, and the privilege of running their own schools. These images capture the Mennonites of Manitoba in their everyday lives, now struggling to erase a recent painful past and continue to live their lives separate from the outside world. I aim to produce photo essays that are intimate yet strong in narrative, and that gives voice to those previously overlooked. The remote colonies seen down dusty roads are off the beaten track, and, once there, difficult to enter and fully understand. I hope to bring a greater understanding and awareness to these communities.



Lisa Wiltse was born in 1977 in Connecticut, and graduated from the Art Institute of Boston with a BFA in photography. In 2004 she moved to Sydney, Australia where she worked as a staff photographer for the Sydney Morning Herald. In 2008, she decided to pursue her freelance career and in 2009 moved to La Paz, Bolivia . She has traveled extensively, focusing on documenting everyday life in marginalized communities in places such as Bangladesh, Uganda, Philippines, and the USA. Her work has been recognized by POYI’s, the National Press Photographers Association, the Sony awards, Magenta’s Flash forward photographer is a recipient of The Walkley award in Australia. She was selected as one of eight photographers for Pour L’Instant in Niort, France in 2009. She has recently been awarded The PDN Emerging Photographer award and selected as an exhibitor for the 2nd Lumix Festival for young photojournalism in Hanover, Germany. Her work been published in The Fader, TIME magazine, GEO, Internazionale, Private Photo Review, The Sun Magazine, Marie Claire, The Australian Financial Review and The Sydney Morning Herald. She is currently a contributor with Getty Reportage.


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Lisa Wiltse

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30 Responses to “lisa wiltse – the mennonites of manitoba, bolivia”

  • Great, love it! Thank you!

  • Wow!!!!!!!!! Lisa what amazing work! the way you shoot, compose, focus, the light, just amazing.

  • I looked at the images before I read the text and so was shocked to read about the rapes. These photos carry no suggestion of people “now struggling to erase a recent painful past.” There is very little tension or conflict in these images. The introduction makes some pretty broad claims that are not borne out in the pictures.

    Also, now that I know that the piece is about women who have been victimized, some of the captions take on greater import. There are two photos of “a Mennonite teenager, 15, with a newborn baby in her arms.” That’s awfully vague — is it her baby? Someone else’s?

    Also, not to nitpick, but image #4 doesn’t seem to me to show “a handmade wooden swingset.” It looks like the commercially made metal one.

  • Outstanding reportage, sorry I cannot make any remarks, I can only make my best compliments.

    I like the sequence, every picture is nice, strong, well composed and harmoniously part of the all story. I barely need to read your words, since the pictures tell so much alone and that is a great result I believe.

    I had also saw your website, where you have lot of different works, very nice.

    Again compliments.

  • Lisa, congratulations on your second Burn essay being published. You have some very strong images, number six in particular is very striking. I love the way the dresses and drapes play off of each other. I do think as Preston pointed out that the artist statement does not match the content. I also see there are numerous images with some or all of the subjects covering their face with hands, books, cloth, hats and such. I would be interested in knowing if they were comfortable with you capturing their images.

  • Thank you to all who have commented so far on my essay. The series was not meant to be directly related to the rapes. It was a tragedy that had occurred in the colony and stated that these images were showing them in their daily lives after the tragedy occurred. Perhaps I need to reword my statement so it doesn’t seem to be centered around the rapes. However,I feel it is important to mention because I do feel there is an element of tension in the photos.

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention, I appreciate your comments.

    Preston, to answer your question about Maria holding the baby. It is her newborn sister and will correct this and put it in the caption.
    The swing set is in fact, wooden

    Kurtlengfield, I found that initially the were a little uncomfortable with their pictures being taken but after I showed them a few pictures they really enjoyed it. Throughout the time that I spent in Manitoba, this was the most enjoyable experience with the children. It was like a game of hide and seek. As soon as I would pick up my camera, their hands would cover their faces. After a moment or two they would reveal their faces to the camera smiling and giggling. They would then ask to see themselves on the back of the camera and repeat this several times.

  • I didn’t read the artist’s statement (I almost never do) so I am only responding to the images themselves. A lovely essay, it is refreshing to see this fairly straightforward style in color on BURN, and it compares well with well-known previous work on Mennonites, Hutterites, etc. that I have seen.. both in terms of quality, and originality of view. Really excellent work, Lisa!

  • Nice work, though it’s the last image that I was hoping to see as a jumping off point – ie how they interact (what little they might have) with the country they are in, seeing as they are true minorities. Otherwise they may as well be in Manitoba, Canada. Not that that’s a bad thing, but just trying to figure out via the photos what it is that makes this Mennonite culture truly unique for being in a S. American country.



  • LISA,

    “I feel it is important to mention because I do feel there is an element of tension in the photos”

    I totally agree… you actually succeeded in showing a sort of dark side interwoven with the bright bucolic daily life of the community, and imo the images where the subjects cover their faces contribute a lot to such feeling… another element of tension could be related to the fact that, in this selection, you chose to depict mostly teen or pre-teen subjects.

  • Very beautiful images, well composed moments brilliantly captured. Yes, there is tension in the images and, as you had stated that they followed the rapes, it seemed to me that the tension of a community in which such acts are truly abhorent trying to quietly cope did come through.

    I fully believe you and always did that the swing set is made of wood and that worries me just a bit, as the support beams just look too narrow to last long.

    As in the previous essay, my only criticism – and it isn’t much of one and doesn’t matter anyway, it’s just a personal thing with me – is that, for all the beauty, the community comes across as a basically joyless place. Even the fun the girls are experiencing in the woods and what must be a very fun and exciting moment for the boy in the pickup seems very subdued.

    My favorite: image 14. Great cat capture.

  • LISA,

    Congratulations on this wonderful essay. Some beautiful moments and yes, you can feel the tension. I felt there was something in the community that was not quite right somehow and I had not read your artist statatement. Rarely do read the statements and I only came back to it this time given your above message… Fostfrog is right, there is a lack of any joy here… I thought initially that this sad nostalgic feeling is what you wanted to capture simply because of the way they live… I understand there is much more going on in the community… Finally, your previous essay on BURN was good but somehow you have raised the bar here and this is great to see. Many superb pictures, 3,4,5,13,14,24 well many…

    Well done LISA!


  • Very nice work. Well, great it is better word.
    And like Sidney I almost never read statements. I think your series shows everything what have to be shown, even with lack of joy, but hmmmm I see there some sings of joy.
    Clear, complete, sensitive image of someone life.
    Of course I will waiting when someone will mention about Towell, but this is something what photographers have to deal with in ours time.
    For me maybe a little too photojournalistic, too informative, but not everything must feed my needs.
    Portrait of this kid nr. 9 is just amazing! What a face!
    Btw, I like square pictures on your website. there are more, how to say it…, more free, more fresh
    and Cold Road is very interesting series.
    Well you are great photographer with interesting life.
    I wish you the best and more great photos.

  • Lovely series. Love every single frame. Gorgeous. Good to see these here.

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    I didn’t read your description either before looking at this really intelligent essay and I was also sensing something a little darker just under the surface of these both delicate and powerful images. As I looked, I just assumed it was my ‘enlightened’ view about closed societies generally and the roles and stereotypes that are incumbent on the varying sexes, etc. Your images went a long way in getting me to step into this community more deeply and to imagine this place and life from another perspective. I’m joining the chorus here in saying it’s really well done on so many levels.

    It was pretty shocking then to read in your statement what had recently occurred in this community. And then I wondered why it was the opening of your statement and if you would rather I go back and look at your essay in light of that event – if that was the filter you wanted us to look through. And I actually dont think you do; I think this work of yours is bigger and placing it in the context of this specific event diminishes its larger relevance. It is not to suggest any diminution of the crime……….perhaps this means to be a question to you instead – how am I to look at this series? From where would you like me to start?

    Anyway, your hard work and empathy is evident. Thanks for sharing this.

  • I just absolutely love this essay. Pretty much every single frame sings to me.

  • Lovely work Lisa. I love the whole mood here. I actually do not feel a sense of tension, but more a sense of quiet spirituality and peace. As always, I am especially drawn to eye contact. 8 and 18 both stop me in my tracks.

    I am somewhat reminded of the absolutely exquisite film, Silent Light, which is set in a Mexican Mennonite community. You have no doubt seen it, but I encourage others to check it out.

  • Gordon,

    I have not seen the film but would love to watch it. Are you able to purchase it online? Really looking forward to it, thank you!

  • Lisa, I rented it at my local video rental place.

  • Lisa, you can find various options (depends on which country you need it for) here:

  • Lisa,

    I absolutely love everything about this series. For me, this gives a glimpse into a place I have never heard of before, beautifully enhance by remarkable images. This is one of my favorite essays portrayed by Burn. I will be following your work. Thank you for the inspiration. Tanja

  • Lisa, you have a very elegant and delicate touch, I like them very much.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • This is a great essay indeed. Congratulations Lisa.
    I’ve gone through it many times now, it asks to be viewed repetitively, it’s so rich. The images are well thought, diverse and consistent. I sense the time you spent with this community and your sharp eye in deciphering it.
    I found the opening of the statement a bit out of place though. It focuses immediately and inescapably on this aspect. It makes the image of the two shy boys somehow incriminating. I agree about the lingering tension but I do not want to explain it this way. It’s a society with so strict self-imposed rules that it’s inevitably alien. There’s bound to be tension. Anyway.
    Lisa, I want to congratulate you again. Will be keeping a close eye.

  • Great work Lisa.
    didn’t you win Voies Off with this in Arles this year? cool to see it in here also. congratulations.

  • Very good work, specially in a community like those, so difficult to get in to. I think pictures 10 an 11 are too informative and disrupt the mood of the essay, so evocative and reflexive (can’t find better adjetives now, English is not my first language). I agree with Charles Peterson, I wanted to see a little of the interaction with the bolivians.

    I think I’m missing something, because I can’t see the point in putting two pictures of the same subject, 3 and 20 (the later is beautiful).

    But over all I deeply enjoyed your serene pictures. Don’t miss Luz silenciosa, it’s a great work by the mexican director Carlos Reygadas.

  • Lisa – I just went through my most recent issue of The Sun and saw your work in there, too. Excellent.

  • Frosty, I’m a Sun reader too, I’ll check it out.

  • Hi Lisa.

    to my eye there is something very still in these images, with arrangements that somehow remind me of naive painting. Maybe its that protestant nature in them; something minimal. Well done gaining there trust.

  • Very fine work, one of the best I’ve seen recently on Burn; it has a journalistic approach but is also very intimate and beautifully shot; the postprocessing is also excellent.

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