Ian Willms The Road to Nowhere

The CONTACT Gallery is pleased to present The Road to Nowhere, an exhibition by Toronto-based photographer Ian Willms.

In 2012 and 2013, Ian Willms retraced the refugee migrations of his Mennonite ancestors to witness the places where they lived and died. He followed the route of their historical journey through the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Siberia, photographing the communities, farmland, execution sites and mass graves that had been left behind.

From their origins in the 16th and 17th centuries, Mennonites in the Netherlands were attacked by the Catholic Church because of their beliefs, prompting these communities to migrate to Poland. They remained for a century until the state began to force them into military service—against their commitment to nonresistance—inciting another migration, this time to Ukraine and Russia. Life was prosperous and peaceful until the Russian Revolution, which brought the Mennonites into an era in which they struggled to survive under the weight of the Soviet monolith. This history underscores Willms’ work, as he searches for places of significance and traces of Mennonite life in the present day.


Ian Willms’ photographic practice explores the narratives of disempowered peoples, wounded environments and dying cultures that are often the symptoms of “progress” and economic growth. Over the last four years, in addition to the The Road to Nowhere, Willms has explored the impact of Canada’s oil sands industry on Indigenous communities. His work has been exhibited in North America and Europe, including exhibitions at Gallery 44 Centre For Contemporary Photography, O’Born Contemporary and Bau-Xi Photo. His work has also been honoured and supported by the Magnum Expression Photography Award, the Pictures of the Year International competition, the Burn Emerging Photographer Fund, the National Magazine Awards and the Canada Council for the Arts. Willms is part of the Global Assignment by Getty Images roster and is a founding member of the Boreal Collective.

Ian Willms is the recipient of CONTACT’s 2013 Portfolio Reviews Exhibition Award. This award, chosen by a jury of international professionals in the field of photography, recognizes outstanding work presented at CONTACT’s annual Portfolio Reviews. The program was created to support and advance the careers of talented emerging artists. A special thank you to Vistek, The Gladstone Hotel, Toronto Image Works and Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts.

Curated by Tara Smith