Last week, as details of the murders at an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania were still unfolding, a CJR Daily reader wrote to us wondering whether “all the photogs flocking to the scene know” that the Amish believe that being photographed violates the Bible’s second commandment. (Specifically, “Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath …”)


It’s challenging enough, this reader suggested, to photograph a grieving community, to balance the news value of a given image against a certain respectfulness for its subjects. But how does one photograph a grieving community whose beliefs prohibit them from being photographed?


“I’m curious,” the reader wrote, “about the editorial calls made on photographing the distraught Amish/not photographing them. In some cases it looks like there was consent, but I can’t be sure. In others it looks like the Amish were photographed without notification … I am genuinely curious — does the newsworthiness of the story override sensitivity/respect for their traditions? Some of the photographic coverage seems a bit like voyeuristic rubbernecking to me …”


We put these questions to several news photographers and editors who covered the story last week, all of whom indicated that they made a special effort to be as sensitive as possible. As one photographer put it: “It was a torturous enough assignment first because of what it was and then because they were Amish on top of it.” What “being sensitive” meant in practice, however, varied from photographer to photographer.


Carolyn Kaster, a Harrisburg, Pa.-based Associated Press photographer, has worked extensively with the Amish community during her fifteen-year career and, when the news of the shooting broke, she sought “guidance” from an old source — an Amish woodworker — about how to handle the assignment. The man stressed the importance of telling the story and advised that everyone is different, to ask each individual how to proceed. Kaster describes as typical her approach to a recent project involving the Amish: “I talk to them, [tell] them what I’m doing and that I [will] photograph them in a way that [won’t] identify them or make them stand out. I [make] them part of the landscape, silhouette them.”


This is similar to the tack that Dan Marschka, a photographer for the Lancaster, Pa. Intelligencer Journal, takes when photographing the Amish community. Explained Marschka, “I understand the religious aspect and we have a policy here we try to adhere to [vis à vis the Amish]: we try not to take recognizable photos, where people are recognizable, in a non-news situation.” He added, “If it’s a news situation, the Amish understand and so do we that they are part of a very public event and if they present themselves that way in the midst of that news situation, it’s all understood.”


Ed Hille, a longtime Philadelphia Inquirer photographer, concurred that, in this case, the news value of the photographs trumped most cultural considerations. “This wasn’t a story about the Amish and their quaintness,” Hille said. “It was about five girls who were executed by a sick person. We were covering a news story.”


Hille’s Inquirer colleague, Scott Hamrick, added, “To a certain extent, you take the picture and you presume that your editor will make sure that if there’s a concern about something being too graphic or painful that the editor won’t use that photograph.” Continued Hamrick, “My job is to collect the information and begin the process of telling the story. I shoot first, ask later.”

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.