Photographing the Amish?

Discussion in 'Casual Photo Conversations' started by sarah_fox, Jul 24, 2010.

  1. So I'm shooting pics at the Miami Valley Steam Thresher's Association's annual dig. I show up at 4:00 PM to see an old oilfield diesel engine fired up -- quite an impressive affair. As the thing chugs to life, a group of boys with suspenders and black straw fedoras start talking with one of them, and he's demonstrating something to the kids and to a farmer in a bill cap. It was an interesting interaction, and so I photographed it. Shortly afterwards, I noticed some more conventionally attired Amish people walking around, and I realized the kids in the black fedoras were with them. I did expect Amish to be in the area (Plain City, Ohio), but I didn't expect them to be sporting black fedoras (but made of straw) and oggling oilfield equipment. I guess boys are boys, and big machines are big machines.
    Anyway, the picture came out pretty good, and I'm trying to figure out whether to use it. It's not my wish to use a photo against the objections of the subjects. I'm just trying to figure out whether they'd have objected. The kids' heads are turned to the side, so none are identifiable. I don't think there are any "prideful" aspects to the photo, as the kids weren't posing, and it's not exactly like this was a senior picture. The photograph is documentary in nature and would not be used commercially. Also it doesn't belittle anyone or paint anyone as odd. It's just a documentary photograph -- part of a photo series on the people of this country. Nothing ground shattering. Nothing that special.
    I've searched PN and find numerous nonauthoritative references to the Amish not wanting to be photographed, but I also searched the web and found this article...
    ... that says that when asked, Amish will decline to be photographed, but only because consenting would be like posing, which would be prideful. It further states that the author's Amish friends could care less about being photographed. I've seen some photography of Amish on that site and also elsewhere, in which adult Amish subjects were unposed but apparently quite aware and unconcerned about the photographer's presence. I've even seen posed images of adult Amish with their children. However, most photos of the Amish are of children and of adults with their backs turned. One of the more interesting/telling photos might have been this one...
    ... of mostly children, with some adults, in which most seem unconcerned, but one man might be covering his face by tilting his hat.
    And then I read this article, which seems more authoritative and sensitive to cultural issues...
    ... which seems to show some acceptance of documentary photography and further points out that Amish children are not yet baptized and are not subject to the same restrictions adults. It's noteworthy that the parents of the boys I was photographing were close by and did not ask me not to photograph them. I was holding a 5D with a 70-200/4, so it's not as though I was inconspicuous.
    So now I'm totally confused. Any thoughts?
  2. Most of the sources you cite seem to agree with my understanding, which is that the Amish are very concerned about seeming "prideful" and so will not pose or give permission for photographs. The idea is basically that if they give you permission, then they're agreeing with you that there is something about them worth photographing, which to them would seem rather arrogant. But that doesn't mean they actually mind being photographed; they just don't want to be complicit in it, so to speak. Simplistic misunderstandings of their position are probably what give rise to the idea that they prefer not to be photographed.
    My impression is that the Amish really aren't that concerned about what other people do. They follow their own ways and they're not inclined to try to force other people into living by their rules. You taking pictures does them no harm, so they don't really care. It's not as if they believed that cameras would steal their souls.
  3. My impression is that the Amish really aren't that concerned about what other people do.​
    Craig pretty much nailed it. Twenty years in Amishland and I never intentionally photographed them beyond their incidental presence in a scene simply because I knew they preferred not to be the center of attention.
    If you're interested, among the most thorough and reliable of the in-depth studies on Anabaptist culture are those written by Donald B. Kraybill. Check him out.
  4. Further to the suggestion about Donald B. Kraybill, I suggest looking at a photography book about the Amish which has text by him. "Old Order Amish", with photographs by Lucian Niemeyer. Really stunning images, taken with the cooperation of Lancaster Old Order Amish, all on Kodachrome 64 or 200 with Leica R cameras and lenses.
  5. I could tell you all a story about golf, a camera, Bob Cousey, John Havlicek and a couple of Amish kids and their dog, but it would be way too off-topic, and not nearly as interesting as this post might make it sound.
  6. Thanks, guys! I knew someone here would have experience with this issue! :)
    I could tell you all a story about golf, a camera, Bob Cousey, John Havlicek and a couple of Amish kids and their dog, but it would be way too off-topic, and not nearly as interesting as this post might make it sound.​
    I'm game! :)
  7. You were in plain view while taking the pictures. Noone objected so I think that it's OK.
  8. There are towns in Lancaster County, PA (Intercourse and Bird in Hand, for example), which are tourist attractions and the Amish there more or less expect to be photographed. I've done it, but never felt quite comfortable doing it, even though I never sensed disapproval from anyone. I've always believed that when you're on someone elses turf, you follow their rules...
  9. Hi Sarah, I can't give you any good photo input, but...If you don't grab a piece of Shoe Fly Pie with a cup of Joe in the AM, you're missing out!
  10. Sarah, I am Quaker, which is somewhat related to Amish and Mennonite. Our religious beliefs are very personal, and we try to live a life with God interwoven into everything we do, and making Him the focus and purpose of our life. I would suspect the Amish do not care so much about being photographed as being able to concentrate on their work and their faith. I know many Quakers who also wear traditional clothing and live a very simple life. They do not mind being photographed either, but because our religious beliefs are so personal, it is not like those living traditional lives care about being photographed, because they have no point to prove to anyone, nor particularly care about how you live and dress. I am not aware of anything about not photographing the Amish.
  11. Phil B has it closest. As someone who lives with an Amish farm literally in his backyard and has several Amish friends I can tell you they don't like to have their pictures taken, period. There are many reasons some cited above and one common sense reason. No one likes to have their picture intentionally taken without permission. If I'm riding around on my lawn tractor, or running around dressed for working in the yard I don't want my picture taken either. As one of my Amish friends puts it, "we're not monkeys on Monkey Island."
    The Amish settled Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand 150 years before these places became tourist spots. So when people come to Lancaster County they should be mindful they are guests and the Amish are not paid actors for the benefit of tourists, like Williamsburg.
    Every so often we get a letter to the editor from someone out of town that complains that an Amish person didn't stop their team in the field so that they can take a picture....The folks that make the most from tourism in Lancaster County are not the plain sect folks.
    Often many people both long time "english" residents and tourists have no idea of the diversity of the plain sects in Lancaster county. Often Old Order Mennonites, Hutterites or Dunkards are confused for Amish. There are also very specific differences between Amish communities that adjoin each other.
  12. BTW, the children in the photograph in the second link of the OP are mennonite children, not Amish(with the one possible exception being the older boy with the hat covering his face).
  13. A lot of what truly offends, is just plain discourtesy and ignorance. I've seen "tourists" harass native Americans out west. I've watched 'tourists" harass the Amish. Many Americans have become rude and stupid, always a bad combination.
    Other cultures need to be respected from a distance. Just because you are amused to see someone "different", doesn't necessarily mean they're amused to see you.
  14. @Michael Axel: Thanks, that makes a lot of sense.
    @Michael DiMarzio: Never had shoe fly pie! Too late to hit Der Dutchman, because I'm back home now. ;-)
    @Mark Lynch: I get what you're saying, I think, and it's about respect. I think what I'm hearing is based on human nature (nobody liking to be photographed by strangers), rather than religion or culture. Unfortunately anyone who photographs human endeavors runs the risk (even the probability) of capturing a human image. However, in the case of my photo, the subject of the photo was not "the Amish," but rather, "the Diesel engine demonstration." The Amish were incidental to the photo, and the main human subject was the demonstrator, who was not Amish. Interestingly, I could not have taken a photo of the demonstration from any angle without capturing the image of one or more of the Amish boys. In fact after they arrived on the scene it was difficult to photograph anything in the park without capturing an Amish person somewhere in the background. (Yes, I avoided capturing Amish images wherever possible.) This almost raises the question of whether a photographer has a right to do photography (a moral right, not a legal right) if Amish people are present.
    If it's just an annoyance issue, I do try to be as respectful as possible to all of my subjects, have the luxury of asking permission or not. I'm not a sneak-attack sort of photographer. I do feel there is an importance to the work I'm doing (or I wouldn't be doing it), so I think that has to trump minor annoyance issues. On the other hand, if it's a matter of capturing someone's soul in the camera and damning them to an eternity in hell, that's entirely a different matter. I wouldn't inflict that even on my ex! ;-)
    With regard to the annoyance issues, we were camped in the park where all this chaos was taking place. We weren't there for the event, but rather to visit friends and family in Columbus. Furthermore, I wasn't on Amish ground; rather they were on mine. There was constantly noise, dust, trash, and smoke billowing over our camper. We often could not come and go from the park because of barracades. We had to buy tickets to the event to get to our campsite. That was all very annoying, to say the least, but we put up with it, because it would have been unreasonable to ask the Miami Valley Steam Threshers people to go away so that we could camp in peace. There has to be some give and take in the course of human endeavors. So I breathed the smoke, listened to the noise, waded through the trash, and took in some photography. That's life. The Amish are smart people, and I think (or at least hope) they understand that.
    I still haven't decided whether to use the photo, but based on the collective opinions I'm hearing, I think I should. My project is about the American people, in all our diversity, and the Amish are a part of that diversity. I didn't go out of my way to find them; rather, they found their way in front of my camera. My photo has nothing to do with quaintness or oddness. It's just Americans engaged in their pastimes -- in this case, Americans playing with huge, antique engines.
    Please don't misunderstand my tone. I'm simply wrapping up everyone's comments into a synthesis, and what I'm hearing is that it's not a religious thing, so much as a common respect thing. I don't feel I'm being disrespectful. In fact I feel I have great respect for the American people, including the Amish. Good heavens, that's the whole point of my project, and if the respect doesn't show through, then I've flat-out failed as a photographer!
  15. PS There are paid actors in Colonial Williamsburg, but the heart of CW is a community of independent skilled artisans whose job it is to carry out the work of the town, which includes turning out products and of course interacting with tourists. There are apprentices, journeymen, and master craftsmen here, and it isn't really correct to regard them as paid actors -- any more than the mechanic who fixes your car or the carpenter who builds your house. It's a complicated little anachronism we have here, and it's a photographic subject that holds quite some facination for me.
  16. Mark's point about "ugly American" tourists is well taken. To me it's disgusting that anyone would think that the Amish (or anyone else) should pose on request -- especially when their dimwitted sense of entitlement extends to the point of writing a letter to the editor to complain about people refusing to do so.
    On the other hand, I don't think I as a photographer need to get anyone's explicit permission to include them in a photo (whether or not they are the subject) when they are in a public place. If someone notices my camera and indicates that they do not wish to be photographed, I will respect that, but if they are not aware of the camera, or are aware but give no sign of caring about it, then I consider myself free to shoot what I please. As I'm sure most of us know, there is an extensive tradition of candid street photography going back a hundred years or more, often of subjects who were not aware they were being photographed and probably never found out. How many of Paul Strand's or Walker Evans' street subjects ever saw their pictures in a book or on the wall of an art gallery?
    I have never been in the position of photographing someone whom I knew had a religious objection to being photographed. I suppose some conservative Muslims might, since some of them consider any representation of the human form to be forbidden. Perhaps I wouldn't photograph someone like that. But I don't the Amish are in that category.
  17. Anyway, here is the photograph in question. It's by no means my greatest photograph, but I like it. It tells a tiny story.
    Perhaps these are Mennonite boys and not Amish?
  18. Craig, I think you and I are of the same mind. That's been my approach: Be respectful, ask permission where appropriate and feasible. Shoot respectfully when it's not possible to ask (e.g. when there are just too many people). Ask permission afterwards if there is a "main" subject you can ask. If told "no," respect the answer. If asked not to photograph, don't.
    Exception: Politicians and other public figures engaged in their public lives.
  19. david_henderson


    Forgive me, I thought the rules about photographing people in a public or private place in the USA were pretty clear cut. The Amish are not a separate country with a completely different set of laws are they? So why not just accord them the same treatment and respectas you'd give anyone else?
    I suppose a model release is out of the question though :-( ?
  20. Sarah, I think you and I agree about being respectful of someone's wish not to be photographed. Where we differ is that I generally do not ask permission either before or after shooting. My attitude is that it's up to them to notice and indicate their disinclination.
    Sometimes it's obvious that someone doesn't want to be photographed. I don't photograph Latino day laborers because many of them are in this country illegally and will take off running if a camera is pointed at them. I suppose they think anyone taking an interest in them must be from the INS. I'm not sympathetic to people who are in this country illegally, but since catching undocumented workers isn't my job and they obviously don't want to be photographed, I leave them alone.
    On the other hand, what if I saw a couple arguing in public and I thought they would make a good picture? I'd probably take the shot. If they don't like it, they shouldn't be making a scene in public. Fighting is one of the things people do and it deserves to be represented in the artistic record.
    One problem I have with the idea that we should ask (either before or after) is that it implies that the individuals in the shot are the point. Usually, for me, that's not true. The real subject is humanity and some aspect of human behavior. Individuals can represent such an aspect at different times, but they are not the aspect itself. Just as you cannot take a picture of blue without taking a picture of some blue thing, you cannot take a picture of anger or sadness or affection without taking a picture of someone who is angry or sad or affectionate. But it's that enduring reality of human experience, not the mortal individual, that is the point. A hundred years from now, the picture might still survive (don't we all harbor hopes of being remembered as great artists?), but the people will be dead and gone and nobody will care whether they gave permission for the photograph.
  21. A hundred years from now, the picture might still survive (don't we all harbor hopes of being remembered as great artists?), but the people will be dead and gone and nobody will care whether they gave permission for the photograph.​
    ... an excellent point!
    Even so, I'm painfully aware of the huge privacy issues that some people face. It is almost impossible to avoid venturing into public SOMETIME, and that fact should not make people fair game for all variety of photographic exploitation during required forays into public space. I'm sure that's the guiding principle behind your reluctance to photograph Latino laborers. I try to let common sense be my guide, but occasionally I like to ask. I admit I've deleted quite a few nice shots because of it, but at least I feel I'm doing no harm that way.
    I wonder if a good alternative approach to asking would be telling: "Hey, everyone, I'm going to be shooting some pictures now. If you don't want to be in my pictures, please step aside." ;-)
  22. It is almost impossible to avoid venturing into public SOMETIME, and that fact should not make people fair game for all variety of photographic exploitation during required forays into public space. I'm sure that's the guiding principle behind your reluctance to photograph Latino laborers.​
    I wouldn't put it that way. In addition to being private individuals, we are also a part of the body public. We are all members of society. Each of us is a part of the world. Being out in public is one of the ways we demonstrate that fact (intentionally or otherwise) and yeah, we are pretty much fair game for photographers when we are out in public. This is part of the price we pay for living in society (at least, in modern technological society) instead of being lone trappers making our own way alone in the wilderness.
    The thing for me with people like the day laborers is that I didn't pick up a camera just to freak people out. Illegal immigrants live each day knowing that they could be arrested and sent back to their home country at any time. On the one hand I'm not all that sympathetic to their position, because they really have no right to be here, but on the other hand it's not my job to hunt them down. They are vulnerable and they know it, and I have enough basic human sympathy not to want to frighten them unnecessarily. So it's more a matter of the side effect than anything to do with privacy or whether there would be anything wrong per se with taking their pictures.
  23. I regret I mis-spoke earlier. Sarah's photo reminded me that I had, indeed, shot a group of Amish when, during my last winter in Lancaster County, a chicken house burned down a few hundred yards from my home. I grabbed the camera, ran across the neighboring cornfield in the pitch dark, fell into a ditch, clambored back out and did a series of shots of our volunteer firemen at work. The series included the attached. I've always been deeply affected by this peoples' solidarity, sacrifice and quiet strength in times of crisis and great need.
  24. Sarah,
    I grew up very close to Amish country. It may be a mistake to assume things about someone who looks Amish. For one thing, they may be Mennonites. For another, each community may have slightly different ideas about what's acceptable. There are certainly Amish who use modern technology like cell phones, or gas-powered hay bailers. They aren't monolithic. Some people, like Bill Coleman, have been able to photograph them extensively.
  25. The boys in your photo might be coined as "Pikes," by the local Amish in my area. (Some gray area between Amish & Mennonite.) A rather private, but quite friendly sect, once you get to talk with them. Some locals own a rather large "propane powered" discount grocery store. (say, perfectly good camera batteries for a dollar, a pack?) I don't permit them to photograph me, so I return the favor.
  26. Thanks, Steven and Scott. I was told they were Amish, but they did look to be some variant of what I've seen of the Amish. That explains it.
  27. I never saw any Amishman wear a hat like that. I never saw any Amish wearing jeans, either...looks like Mennonites to me, too. My understanding of the Amish aversion to being photographed has less to do with pride than their belief against any graven images...same reason their dolls don't have faces.
    I could always tell the Mennonite houses from the Amish...if power and phone lines were run to the house, it was a safe bet they weren't Amish. Blew me away the first time I saw a gal in clunky black shoes, plain blue dress, and a bonnet pushing a lawn boy power mower (again, Mennonite). Next time you're up that way, if you haven't been there already, you may want to stop in at Lehman's hardware store in Kidron (or even better, the one in Mt. Hope).
    Reading this thread is making me hungry for some Jarlsberg cheese. :) BTW, I heard Alpine-Alpa restaurant is closed, and that the cuckoo clock has been sold and will be moved. :(
  28. I have seen people others told me were Amish drive a horse and buggy with the whole family in it through a drive-thru at a Wendy's. There's no telling sometimes. Just treat them like people first, and you won't have too far to go to get around to treating them like Amish people you want to photograph. I have confidence in you.
  29. Sarah, I applaud you for your concern for the ideas held by the people in your photograph, and for being so respectful.
    However, as far as using the image, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that if you created an image in a public place where there was no perception of privacy, you own the copyright and are free to use the image as you see fit.
    I like the image, it does tell a neat little story, timeless and quaint, I'd say go for it!
  30. david_henderson


    Justin Stott. You'd own the copyright regardless, irrespective of where it was taken. You are as you say free to photograph what you want in a public location. But that's not the same as being "free to use the image as ypu see fit". To use an image for commercial purposes that contains a recognisable person you need a model release - which might be hard to get.
  31. ... "commercial" meaning, for instance, an ad reading, "Dickenson Diesel Oilfield Engines... Preferred by 4 out of 5 Menonite boys." ;-)
    But yes, by law, I can show it, exhibit it, publish it, and even sell copies of the print without any release. These are considered noncommercial uses. As I understand it, commercial use would be to promote some product.
    Justin, I think your understanding is probably valid. If anyone had objected, they probably would have said something.
  32. I just found this thread, after spending yesterday in an Amish community in Tennessee. I visited several farms which had goods for sale (signs outside the farm). I bought bread, cookies and jams at various farms, and not one person gave me permission to shoot photos, even after I said I wouldn't include people in them. One farm sold baskets. The little out-building from which they sold their goods was beautiful - the sun shining through the baskets, jars of jam on the shelves, etc. The woman I spoke with was very friendly, but declined my request.
    Obviously, these were all on private property, so I did not shoot. From the road, I did get one great shot of some kids plowing a field, but they were not crazy about my shooting, so I will not post the image.
    As I see it, the problem is not so much with vanity, or "graven images". It's simply the fact that they don't like being perceived as some kind of "freak show" for tourists. I respect that, and will not post the images.
    Sarah, your shot is entirely different. It's a slice of life. The kids just happened to be there. I'd have no ehtical problem using that shot.

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