In “A Day With the Freissers,” Brazilian photographer Ana Caroline de Lima traveled to Bolivia to document the lives of a Mennonite family preserving a disappearing way of life.
Hailing from a working class family in São Paulo, Ana Caroline de Lima did not set out to become a photographer, but fate had other plans. While pursuing her BA in journalism, de Lima received an assignment that would change her life: she was asked to both write the story and make photographs. “I borrowed a camera from the university. I didn't know how to use it properly but when I started I was completely amazed by it,” de Lima recalls.
From that day forth, de Lima would go on weekend photo walks through São Paulo with a group. One day, she noticed a few elders picking magazines from a garbage can. The image brought back memories from her youth when her father, then a janitor working at a condominium, brought home books he had picked from the recycling room to help her learn the English language.
Feeling a sense of kinship, de Lima approached the elders to speak with them; one noticed the camera and asked, “Could you take a portrait of me because it’s been years since I’ve seen a photo of myself?” The question struck a chord, and after de Lima returned home, she remembers feeling changed, knowing that making photographs of people was now a necessity.
“From the very beginning, photography has lead me to people and communities who have been silenced or neglected for generations,” de Lima says. “Photography gave me a sense of responsibility, a mission to show that we may come from different backgrounds and cultures, but we are alike in many ways.”
Meeting the Mennonites of Bolivia
In 2019, de Lima traveled to Bolivia on an assignment and found herself with three extra days to spend abroad before she had to return home. While speaking with a friend, de Lima expressed interest in Mennonites, an ethno-religious group of Anabaptist Christians who have become known for their longstanding commitment to pacifism. Old Order Mennonites, which flourish in Bolivia, maintain the dress, doctrine, and traditions of the nineteenth-century orders, eschewing advancements like electricity and modern technology.
As it so happened, de Lima’s friend worked as a park ranger for a local Mennonite colony and introduced her to Peter, their leader. After a brief visit, de Lima knew she needed to delve further into this little-known world. That October, she returned for a three-day visit with the Freissers, a family of Mennonites of Mexican descent living on a large farming colony in the state of Santa Cruz.
Abraham and Johanna Freisser, parents two three boys and one girl, welcomed de Lima into their home with open arms. They had previously visited Mato Grosso, Brazil, to bring Abraham’s father in for surgery, and felt unmoored by the locals response to seeing Mennonites. “Abraham told me that when he visited Brazil, people were looking at him as he was an alien,” de Lima says. “There’s a lot of prejudice due to the fact that people don’t know anything about their culture.”
Although Mennonites are traditionally reserved, the Freissers were welcoming, recognizing this extraordinary opportunity for cross-cultural exchange. “"It will be great!” Ahraham told de Lima. “More Brazilians will know about us and hopefully not look strange at us when we go there.”
Preserving a Disappearing Way of Life
According to de Lima there are hundreds of Mennonite colonies in Bolivia, many like the Freissers by way of Mexico; some came directly from Pennsylvania decades ago, all searching for parcels of land they could buy and turn into farms where they would be free to live according to their beliefs. The colony in Santa Cruz de la Sierra is a dairy farm, focusing on the production of cheese, as well as soy and sorgo, which is raised for their own consumption and sold to nearby towns.
Everyone works on the colony, including the children from a very young age. Girls drop out of school around age 8, while boys will stay up to the age of 12. The schools are focused on instilling the youth with religious studies in their original language, Alemán bajo (“low-German”), which they speak in the colonies. Boys will be taught Spanish and math so they can engage with non-Mennonites, while the girls are not. Girls learn to sew, producing clothing for the colony.
Although the Mennonites are humble people who refrain from flaunting their wealth, de Lima noticed their success in the size of their homes, which all followed the same design. “That’s because they don’t want to show that a family is ‘richer’ than other as all are equal in the eyes of God,” de Lima says. “It was beautiful to see how they do everything thinking at the colony as a whole, not as individuals. In this particular colony, there are many flowers in the gardens — something I didn’t see in other colonies. The landscapes are very vast and there is a lot of empty spaces and open fields.”
Pausing for the Pandemic
Over a period of two and a half days, de Lima photographed the family’s distinctive way of life for the series “A Day With the Freissers.” Knowing she needed more time, she planned to return during Easter 2020 but the COVID-19 soon made that impossible.
As of December, there are no official reports of COVID infections in the colony as no one has been tested. Some appear to have had cases with mild symptoms, but there have been no deaths. With no electricity, phones, or internet at the colony, de Lima stays in touch with the Freissers through a taxi driver who delivers supplies every two weeks. Johanna has the driver call de Lima through Whatsapp so they can catch up.
“When nearby towns were under lockdown, the Freissers told me how the colony was suffering — there was no one they could reach out to and there was no information. NGOs and the local government didn’t contact them,” de Lima says.
“They told me about the prejudice they find in Bolivia itself. Most Bolivians would see them as ‘very reserved’ and ‘isolated.’ After our talks I can't help but look at the photos that clearly shows something different: hard work is part of the culture but there's warmth in everyday life. You just need to be there to see. Not as an outsider, but as a friend.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
More work by Ana Caroline de Lima here.