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The Amish & Photographs

In 1991, and again in 2001, we provided what is perhaps the most complete explanation of the issue of photographs, graven images, and the Amish. In the process, we tried to debunk some of the misconceptions outsiders have about the Amish people's aversion to having their pictures taken.

It is difficult to leave Lancaster County without hearing of the Amish aversion to having their photographs taken. Nevertheless, few tourists return home without photos, while books and postcards with spectacular pictures sell well in local gift shops. It is indeed ironic that a group of people who wish not to be photographed are perhaps the most photographed ethnic group in America! The Second Commandment, concerning the making of "graven images," is most frequently noted as the reason for the Amish attitude on the matter.

But as most locals know, the Amish often have calendars, books, magazines and newspapers with pictures in them. Some Amish enjoy sketching, and some Amish have even become known for their folk art. Mirrors are found in Amish homes. Should not these also be considered "graven images?" It seems there may be more to all this than we may at first think.

Let’s begin with an interesting story concerning Christian Beck, who came to America from Bern, Switzerland in the mid 1800's. One of his sons brought his dog on the ship, something that was not allowed. During the voyage, the dog had puppies, which was discovered by the captain. But the kind captain merely selected one for his own and, "reaching into his pocket, he handed John a silver dollar and a daguerreotype (an early type of photograph) of himself. When the father heard of this, he took both the dollar and the picture from the boy. It was wrong to have the picture, according to Amish beliefs…" So writes, David Luthy in perhaps the earliest story about the Amish and photographs.

Between 1862 and 1878, general conferences of Amish ministers were held in order to reconcile some differences in the various districts. In minutes from the second meeting in 1863 in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, Solomon Yoder is on record as opposing photographs, which had just recently been perfected. In 1865, the conference meeting in Holmes County, Ohio, drew up a "Discipline of 11 Articles." Article 3 reads in part "decided not to allow…carrying hidden on one’s person photographic pictures of human likenesses or hanging them on the wall to look at in our houses." There is apparently no mention of a Scriptural basis for this, such as the Second Commandment. Decorating homes with "large mirrors" was also deemed improper. All of this seems to center on pride and vain displays in the home. 

In Lancaster, many Amish children attended the rural one-room public schools, and there are quite a few school photos from the early 1900's showing the Amish and non-Amish children posing in a "class picture." But photographs at this time were not limited to children. One Lancaster Amishman told me that before the turn of the century some newly-wed Amish couples were having wedding pictures taken in photo salons.  Indeed, two local exhibitions featured examples of such "studio portraits" with Amish posing for pictures, most recently at the 2001 "Stars & Bars" quilt exhibit at the People's Place Quilt Museum. There, beside a quilt made by Susanna Mast Stoltzfus, you could see a photo taken on her wedding day in 1858, when she married Gideon Stoltzfus  This practice probably influenced the ban on photographs which, especially if displayed in the home, demonstrated a lack of humility.

In 1910, preacher John D. Kauffman of Missouri wrote of his concern over photographs. In 1933, the daughter of an Amish deacon sat for a photograph. She repented, confessed, and was forgiven by the congregation. (There have been similar voluntary confessions of having been photographed as late as the 1980’s.) The deacon’s daughter gave the photos to her father to burn, but he reportedly said, "They look too lifelike, I cannot put them in the stove."

More recently, the most common explanation given for this aversion to photographs is similar to that offered by the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau… "Many Amish believe that photographs in which they can be recognized violate the Biblical commandment, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thyself a graven image.’ Please follow our lead in taking no photographs in which faces are recognizable."

Calvin George Bachman, in his 1942 Old Order Amish of Lancaster County, offers the idea that all this may even date back to a time in Europe and Germany when people believed that you might die if you had your portrait painted. This is similar to an idea that persists even to this day among some "primitive" cultures that a photograph robs the soul. But he admits this may have nothing to do with the dislike of photos today.

Interestingly Bill Coleman, in his 1988 book of spectacular photographs, Amish Odyssey, writes this concerning taking a picture of an Amish woman in a carriage… "I had hoped that the fog and the distance had kept me relatively anonymous. In fact I was certain of it. Yet when the buggy passed, a woman leaned out and said very clearly, ‘You have stolen my soul.’ The hurt stayed with me a long time. Though I’ve heard it a few times since from others, it is that woman in the fog who stays in my memory."

Although the Second Commandment is usually cited, Bachman writes that "photographs are an evidence of pride, in which people are tempted to look at a likeness of themselves with self admiration…Pictures, they say, represent simply the outward appearance, which is temporary; and in paying too much attention to the passing, there is always danger of losing sight of the eternal and the spiritual."

He also noted that the main objection was to sitting or willingly posing for a picture. Thus, passport photos and public school class photos including Amish children do exist, as this was "part of a program." But now that the Amish have their own private schools, there are no class pictures.

In 1950, the Amish church of Pike County, Ohio, printed their church rules and ordinances (Ordnung) in English. It stated quite simply, "No photographs." In 1974, at the 8th Annual Old Order Amish Steering Committee Meeting in Wisconsin, the minutes noted that when the Amish travel from Canada to the USA, photographs were not required due to a special document the Committee had which exempted them "if religiously opposed to photographs."

More recently, Dr. Donald Kraybill in The Riddle of Amish Culture, notes that the Second Commandment was used to legitimize the taboo against pictures. "In the latter part of the nineteenth century, as photography was becoming popular, the Amish applied the biblical injunction against ‘likeness’ to photographs. Their aversion to photographs is a way of suppressing pride. If people see themselves displayed in a photograph, they might begin to take themselves too seriously."

Most visitors to Lancaster County find it difficult not to take photographs of the Amish. Yet, if there is one thing that appears to bother the Amish, it is people trying to constantly, and sometimes secretly, take their picture. (There are even stories of tourists paying or bribing Amish children to be photographed.) Tourist literature continues to explain this aversion to photographs as being based on the Second Commandment, "Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven or in the earth beneath." But where did this idea come from?

As most people know, Amish children often played with faceless dolls. While there are explanations for the lack of a face having to do with the doll’s becoming a "likeness," others say it was simply a custom. Today it is common for the Amish to buy or make dolls with faces, and there are examples of Amish dolls with faces sewn or drawn on dating back to 1900.

Elmer Smith in his 1961 book The Amish Today feels a short story published in a leading national magazine led people to such a conclusion. The December 1937 Scribner’s story called "Suzie" told of an Amish girl who received a doll from her teacher as a Christmas gift. Her father removed the head and replaced it with a stuffed stocking since "only God can make people." Smith concludes that this idea that dolls are graven images "is not nearly so widespread as most people think."

Now we will look at what one Amishman himself has to say about it all...

Elmo Stoll, in the March 1987 issue of the Amish magazine Family Life, writes that "the Second Commandment is not about taking snapshots. (If it were, what were the poor people supposed to make out of it for 5,000 years before the comparatively recent invention of the camera?)" He further adds that a painted portrait would be no more permissible than a photograph, that x-rays and toy animals are images, and that stamps and money have likenesses of people on them.

Thus, a toy animal is not a threat, nor are photographs of scenic spots on calendars. A x-ray is not a problem, obviously, because "no proud grandfather has ever yet been tempted to impress people he meets by pulling from his wallet x-ray photos of his grandchild’s spinal column!" He notes that some groups allow snapshots for government files, since these photos are not kept by the Amish themselves. Indeed, one Lancaster Amishman who traveled around the world in the early 1900’s had a passport with photo for his trip. And while some people might be tempted to admire themselves in the mirror, at least this is not a permanent image.

Stoll says the issue has more to do with idolatry, and that today’s idol, unlike the "golden calf," may really be Self. "We believe that posing for photographs is part of the world’s misguided emphasis on glorifying our outward man. The Bible tells us that it is the inner man that is important… The world puts a lot of emphasis on a pretty girl or a handsome boy. A person’s facial features should not affect our opinion of a person’s worth or value. Thus we believe that letting ourselves get involved in the world of photography leads us away, not toward, true humility."

By now it should be clear that this may really be an attempt to provide a Scriptural explanation for an idea that is central to Amish culture…humility. Stoll notes that there is already much concern over dress and finery at Amish weddings, and that photographic records would only compound the problem, not to mention the large sums of money spent on cameras, film and equipment. 

Stoll admits that some Amish may long for and have pictures of their children or parents. Indeed, some local photographers tell stories of Amish parents who request copies of photos of their children. Elmer Smith, in The Amish Today, tells of an Amish couple that cherished a photo of their family, hiding it under a paper lining in a drawer. When it was found by a visiting sister, it was seen as "a self-image that shows pride in oneself." According to the story, the wife hid the photo "under the insulation of the roof outside the second floor window. She hid it so well she couldn’t find it, and asked the non-Amish friends who gave it to her if another copy could be obtained."

I always find it interesting to hear the explanations the Amish give for this aversion to pictures. One day I asked an Amish girl whether it had something to do with the Second Commandment. Her answer was, "I don’t know, but that’s what the tour guides say."

One day I picked up a young Amishman hitchhiking to visit a friend in the hospital. I asked him what he says when tourists ask, "Why can’t I take your picture?" He jokingly told me his reply is usually, "Because somebody already did!" While many local Amish may understand the visitor’s natural curiosity, they don’t want to feel like animals in an African photo safari.

Obviously, the best way to make contact with one of our Amish neighbors is not with a camera in your hand. The next time you are out in your yard, imagine how you would feel if a carload of people drove up, stopped, and started snapping pictures of you, and video-taping your activities. Refraining from taking photos is more than just a courtesy. As the local Visitors Bureau notes, "While you talk and mingle with the Amish, please remember that they are not actors or spectacles, but ordinary people who choose a different way of life. Please respect their privacy and refrain from trespassing on their land or taking photographs."

Amish author Stoll concludes, "No, let us not slip gradually, bit by bit, into the ways of the world that lead to an emphasis on pride and personal vanity. When we are gone, let us be remembered not by how broad were our noses, the height of our brows, or the angle of our cheekbones, but by what truly matters --- the lives we have lived and the examples we have left. Dust we are, to dust we shall return. Why frame and embellish and hang on the wall the pictures of this house of clay in which we live? Let us beware lest we permit Self to be exalted becoming unto us a graven image."

Amish Country News Article by Brad Igou, (1991, 2001)

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