Photographing the Amish

For this issue, I wanted a cover story that related to our current "Amish in the Media" series, and I chose what seemed to be a perfect fit, "The Amish and Photos."

When we visit Amish Country, even though there are hundreds of Amish post cards and picture books available, we want to get "our own." TV reporters often call to do a story on the Amish and are surprised to learn the Amish don’t want to be on TV! And so the Amish, who prefer not to be photographed, become the #1 "photo subject" for many visitors. Of course, these same visitors also want to get to "know" the Amish, perhaps even get a chance to talk with them. Obviously, the best way to make contact with one of our Amish neighbors is not with a camera in your hand.

The photo situation often results in some strange stories. Recently a visitor, after being told by her guide not to take photos, asked an Amish lady to pose for a picture. The Amish lady declined. The guide asked the visitor, "Did I forget to mention that the Amish don’t want to be photographed?" The visitor replied, "You told us, but we’re from Israel." In other words, since she had come from so far away, she thought that the Amish might make an "exception" in her case.

Perhaps the most famous story involved the lady who stopped her car by the road where an Amishman was plowing with his horses. She sent her husband to detain him and pose for a picture. The Amishman refused. The lady was most unhappy, drove down the road to the State Police, and went inside to report this man. She thought he was a State employee paid to be in costume, and that he was refusing to do his job and pose for a photo!

One day I was driving home and I saw an Amish lady carrying groceries from the store to her carriage. A man with a video camera was right in her face, following her back and forth, no more than three feet away from her. She was clearly distressed. I pulled into the parking lot, walked up to the man, and asked him if he was aware the Amish do not wish to be photographed. He was so surprised that he immediately put down his camera and backed off. I had never done anything like that before, and I guess we both shocked each other.

Since then I have often thought about what it would be like to live in a "fishbowl" as the Amish do. I pondered how I’d react if I were out doing yardwork and a big tour bus drove up and stopped in front of my house. Suddenly, I would see video cameras and photos being snapped from the windows. Perhaps a few people would get off the bus for a better shot of me. What would I do? I’d probably run in the house and lock the door. Or maybe I’d spray everyone with the hose! They’d think I was being rude, now wouldn’t they? Maybe we are all too "hung up" on photos.

Perhaps because of this sensitivity, when I traveled in China, I usually asked permission of people who I wanted to photograph. It just seemed like the polite thing to do. And many times here, driving past Amish farms, I see what would make a wonderful picture, but I carry no camera in the car. I just try to engrave it in my memory. I have Amish friends, and sometimes wish I had pictures of them. And of course, I hurry to the store to buy any new book of Amish photographs that comes out.

So, here we are with a special Amish issue, a story about the Amish objection to photos, and pictures of the Amish on the cover! That’s probably one of the reasons you picked it up, right? I hope you’ll read the cover story for a better understanding of the Amish perspective on this matter. Perhaps it will make you think.

Amish Country News Publisher's Message by Brad Igou (2001)


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