By Kevin Williams
So, this is a topic that comes up from time to time and the answer is always evolving and changing. Cindy yesterday emailed me and asked:
“I just have a question. I understand the Amish do not like pictures taken of them or their family. Do you ask them if you can take photos or just take them from afar? It seems confusing if you study the Amish but yet take pictures of them for the Internet?”
Yesterday, I posted some photos of some Amish kids walking home from school. 20 years ago I probably wouldn’t have taken that photo. Yesterday, I didn’t really think twice. What has changed? A lot.
First of all, even now there are plenty of peaceful, poignant Amish scenes that I don’t take photos of out of respect and privacy. Twenty five years ago there was basically one blanket rule as a journalist when writing about the Amish: don’t take their photos. Ever.
But the Amish have changed. The New New Order Amish and the New Order Amish Fellowship have increasingly accepted and even embraced photography. Even the Old Order Amish will sometimes take photos of themselves or their children as a keepsake. Yes, plenty of the more conservative Amish still want nothing to do with a camera. But now cameras are everywhere among the non-Amish and even the Amish themselves frequently have cell phones with cameras in them.
I wish I could give a one-sized fits all answer here, but I can’t. For me, whether I take a photo or not simply depends on the circumstances and I have to make a split second judgment. In the case of the photo of school children walking home….I didn’t disclose to readers exactly where it was. Highland County, Oho has dozens of Amish schools. There’s no way you could identify the kids walking and they are on a public road.
To me the where the photo is taken is almost as important as anything else. If it’s in a public setting, it’s different. There was a public produce auction I attended recently where an Amish auctioneer was running the bidding. With hundreds of customers going in and out each week, the Amish auctioneer standing up at the podium in front of everyone, there’s just absolutely no way the Amish man could expect to not be photographed. If I am standing on a public road and there’s an Amish farmer out in his field and I can take his photo and there’s no way anyone could identify him, I’m okay with taking the photo.
Someone’s home seems, to me, to be a completely different issue. I ALWAYS ask permission before I take photos of anything. And if I know that I am in a particularly conservative Amish community I am far more judicious with my camera usage. For me, there are just so many factors that go into whether to take a photo or not. My advice to others who are traveling in Amish country, want to take photos, and may not know all of the nuances and ins and outs….I still say, when in doubt, don’t photograph. Always ask and if you are in a very conservative community (Berne, Indiana or a Swartzentruber community) just don’t take photos period. In a public place, be discreet about taking photos out of politeness. No one wants to feel as if they are on exhibit.
Some may disagree with my thoughts and that is fine, I’d love to hear different opinons on this!