Hutterite photographer walks fine line

Balancing tradition with modern | “I am trying to tell the Hutterite story,” says 19-year-old Kelly Hofer

Scrolling through the pictures on Kelly Hofer’s website is like peeking through a curtain to glimpse life on a Hutterite colony.

Hofer’s pictures show children setting the tables for a wedding, children singing Christmas carols with their faces lit by candles and women putting the finishing touches to rows of pies.

The 19-year-old is using these pictures to tell the Hutterite story not only to non-Hutterites but to Hutterites themselves.

“Very little do we see ourselves in the media and that is kind of what I wanted to do, expose Hutterites to themselves a little more, more than show others who Hutterites are,” said Hofer, who builds fire trucks on the Green Acres colony near Wawanesa, Man.

After work, Hofer picks up his camera and tries to capture the people and scenery at his colony.

“I don’t travel at all. It’s all just here.”

Hofer first picked up the school camera when he was 11 and has been taking pictures ever since. He’s never taken a photography course, but when he was 16 he taught a photography workshop through Hutterite Brethren Instructional Interactive Television.

“It’s all trial and error and off the internet.”

Hofer has gained almost 4,000 followers through his Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and blog postings. While many of his followers are from other colonies, non-Hutterites are also fascinated by the peek inside the Hutterite world.

“I am trying to tell the Hutterite story.”

Telling the Hutterite story means Hofer must maintain a fine balance between respecting his community’s religious beliefs, which have in the past shunned the use of cameras, and honouring his creative work through photography.

“That’s a fine, fine line. In a sense it’s not 100 percent supported here on the colony. The minister doesn’t like it at all, never has, never will. He is like a minister, that’s his job to keep us all conservative, I suppose,” said Hofer, who tries to be respectful when taking and posting his photographs.

“I try to keep everything online and in my photos dignified. In a sense I basically fear to upset anyone. It’s not always the best way of telling a story, to be completely safe. As far as I’m concerned, in a colony it’s the only way. If I offend anyone, it gets back to me so fast, it’s not worth it.”

Hofer recently tweeted during a wedding as a way to show Hutterite wedding traditions.

“I haven’t got one piece of negative reaction. There was a few Hutterites that retweeted it in moderate excitement,” said Hofer, who believes only 200 to 300 Hutterites tweet regularly.

“Hutterites don’t seem to like Twitter. Mostly it’s the geeks like me, the early adopters. It’s not the mainstream and not the older people.”

Hofer hopes his early adoption of social media will help break down barriers between Hutterites and non-Hutterites. Posting his photographs and blogging has also encouraged other Hutterites to pick up cameras and record their lives.

Even though Hofer is trying to use his creativity to tell the Hutterite story, in the back of his mind he’s always worrying that he might push too far and get his family in trouble.

“My father is the principal and my mother is very intelligent. They worry all the time and try to reason me out of some of the things.

“I keep on pushing the boundary and upsetting them. They’re trying to stay out of trouble themselves. If I get into trouble, they get into trouble for not looking after me.”

What keeps pushing Hofer forward is the lack of photographs of his Green Acres colony. There are fewer than 1,000 grainy photographs of buildings, scenes and aerial views of the 20-year-old colony. He can only find two photographs of his grandmother.

“There are very, very few photos and I often do wish for more.”

To Hofer, taking photographs is no different than telling a story or singing a song — it’s a story worth telling.

“I will probably get in trouble for doing this. I have to be very conservative in every thing I do, even though I am not a conservative person at all.”

More of Hofer’s photos can be seen at www.kellyhofer.com.

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