It takes a Colony
November 11, 2008
A children's photo project examines life in Montana Hutterite colonies
BY DAVE REESE
A children’s photo project examines life in Montana Hutterite colonies
As a mother and as an artist, Cheryl Bannes was always amazed at how her children would interpret their surroundings through photography.
The children often took different viewpoints from adults when photographing everyday life. So when Bannes, an art teacher who travels throughout Montana, saw the success of a "day in the life" photography project at the Yellowstone Art Museum, the idea was spawned to create something similar in Montana, with children. She took it a step further, and asked Hutterite colonies to participate.
Working with the elders, teachers and parents at seven Hutterite colonies in eastern Montana, Bannes received the approval to pursue a "Day in the Life of a Hutterite Child."
She would provide the cameras; the children would provide their eyes. The result was over 1,200 photographs of life at Hutterite colonies - all through the eyes of the children. The best 35 photos are used in a traveling exhibit around Montana.
The common theme throughout the children's photos was the way the children saw their lives around them: especially their families. "It was the love of family. And love of life," Bannes said.
The photos depict many areas of the Hutterite lifestyle, from the food they raise to how they spend their leisure time. "The Hutterite children are kids just like any other kids, but they have a unique way of living," Bannes said. "The project lets people see that they are just kids." >>>
Some Hutterite colonies don't like to have their photos taken, so some colonies where Bannes taught art opted out of the program. The rest, though, endorsed it enthusiastically, Bannes said.
The traveling exhibit is booked out for a year in cities across Montana, and will eventually make its way to Washington, D.C., after 2009. Book publishers have also approached Bannes about using the images.
It took a high level of trust for the Hutterite colonies to allow Bannes to do the photo project. "The parents came to see that it was a children's project. They were supportive and behind it," said Bannes, whose artist in residence program is done through the Montana Arts Council.
The photography show was juried by four of the parents, a teacher and Bannes, and the photos were all respectful of their beliefs and customs. "I'd been working with these colonies for over six years, so I've known the kids and teachers and parents for quite some time," Bannes said. "We've done every kind of art you can imagine."
The children participating in the project used disposable 35 millimeter film cameras, and Bannes taught them composition, exposure and dark room techniques before they ever set out in the field. "Nobody expects great pictures out of these kind of cameras, but these are fabulous pictures," Bannes said.
She said she avoided using digital cameras for the project because "I still love film photography and I wanted the kids to experience that. I'm a little bit old fashioned."
The Hutterite colonies that participated were Spring Creek Colony and King Colony near Lewiston, the Deerfield Colony near Denton, the Ayers and Ford Creek colonies near Grass Range, and the Loring Colony near Malta.
After the photos were taken, Bannes went through 1,200 photos and winnowed out the shots that were poorly exposed, repetitive or otherwise unusable. Bannes noticed some similarities throughout the children's work: the photos always seemed to get better toward the ends of the rolls of film. "Almost across the board, most of the photos that are in the show are ones that were shot toward the end of the roll," Bannes said. "It was neat to see that what was talked about in class was being used."
Bannes is an Illinois native who lives in Lewistown. She has taught art through the Montana Arts Council for nearly seven years.
The Hutterite photo project was one of the most rewarding aspects of her teaching art in Montana.
"People have been really touched by the photos," she said. "I didn't expect the overwhelming reception of this show. People are touched so much by this, and I didn't foresee that."
The photos, such as the one of a Hutterite grandmother knitting, remind Montanans of a more simple life. "That photo seems to touch people's hearts, Bannes said. "That's been really wonderful." •