How Do You Photograph the Amish? Let Us Count the Ways

Covering a grieving community whose beliefs prohibit them from being photographed is a tricky, sensitive assignment -- but an eminently doable one.

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.”

The AP’s Carolyn Kaster appreciates this approach but has a slightly different philosophy: whenever possible, do no harm. “You can go through this business and try to make pictures of impact and importance but if an image is to have a journalistic purpose, to communicate something, if you can communicate it in a different way, without causing harm, then I think you’re obliged to do that,” Kaster said. She described a photograph that she declined to take last week because consent was not granted: She approached an Amish school in the area and “without my cameras explained who I was and what I’d like to do, to take a picture of kids on school grounds with no one singled out.” The teacher told Kaster that the children were “very wary” and asked her not to take the picture. “I said no problem. I did not make that photograph.”

Kaster went to two other schools and got the same answer. “I had every right as an American to stand on public property and take that photograph,” she said. “I could’ve taken the picture and asked the teacher later. But that’s just how I approach this community.” Kaster added, “That might have been a key picture — children in the schoolyard of a one-room Amish schoolhouse,” and conceded that colleagues might criticize her for not having taken that photograph. “But,” she said, “I found another way to communicate what I wanted to communicate that I felt was within the boundaries of the [Amish traditions]” — by waiting for the children to get out of school and “be away from the school house environment,” finding a group of them walking home and talking to them and photographing them as they “hammed it up.” Said Kaster, “I could tell I wasn’t frightening them and causing them grief by photographing them. And I did have a job to do. I needed to make pictures of the Amish community, specifically children.” (As both Kaster and the Intelligencer Journal’s Dan Marschka pointed out, the Amish are baptized as adults and so children, not yet church members, are not under the same religious prohibitions regarding photography).

Several photographers noted that subjects’ consent, in this case, was often hard to get as the media were frequently cordoned off behind police lines. Said Carolyn Cole, a New York-based, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Los Angeles Times: “When I arrived [at the crime scene], it was evident that everything was in lockdown. I wasn’t going to have to make a decision [about whether to ask first or shoot first]. The decision was made for me before I arrived there because it was all blocked off.” Cole relied heavily on her long lenses.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Ed Hille, too, largely used long lenses last week — both out of necessity and, he said, in an effort to be respectful. In the first hours after the news broke, Hille shot an image of a group of Amish men gathered around a police car. “I shot this picture of these Amish gentlemen with a long lens because I tried to put myself in the subjects’ shoes here. I tried not to be intrusive. I tried to back off and see what I could get.”

All of the photographers we spoke to stressed that the Amish, generally, did not react negatively to their presence or ask them to stop taking pictures. Said the Inquirer’s Hille, “I only heard of one [Amish] person, at least the first couple of days, who said, ‘Don’t take my picture.’” The Times’ Cole described one situation where she photographed an Amish woman on her porch — from afar, with a long lens — and then “approached her and asked her if it was okay if I got her name. She wasn’t interested in giving me her name.” But, Cole said, “I didn’t have anyone sort of turn their back on me or react as if they were uncomfortable or irritated. I didn’t feel a real negative response from the people in that community.” Cole contrasted this experience with the Columbine school shooting, which she also covered. “Columbine could not have been more different. It was just a very, very negative media experience. So much so that the funerals we covered the students themselves would go to every measure to block our view, basically tell us to go away, we were kept at a far distance, same as this … There was a clear response from the community of Columbine that media was not welcome … I didn’t feel that here.”

On this point Jackie Larma, a Philadelphia-based AP photo editor who oversaw the wire service’s photographic coverage of the Nickel Mines shooting, said, “I asked [the photographers], ‘Did anyone object?’ Nobody had. It was probably because they were in shock, but there was no word of ‘Stop shooting me’ or whatever. No objection was verbalized to the photographers. I think it was the circumstances.” But, adds the Inquirer’s Hamrick, because the media were often “held back several hundred yards … there wasn’t necessarily the random contact and interaction with the people that would allow them to express frustration toward us.”

Given the sheer size of the media extravaganza that cropped up in and around Nickel Mines last week — much of it consisting of out-of-state journalists with little to no experience working among the Amish — there was sure to be some bad behavior.

Said the Intelligencer Journal’s Marschka, “The national media are generally ignorant of the [Amish] culture, other than that they dress differently and ride in horses and buggies.” The AP’s Kaster elaborated: “Any person with a beard or a buggy was considered Amish [by the media at large] — ‘Oh my gosh, they have a beard! They must be Amish!’ A Pennsylvania Dutchman who is married has a beard. He might be Mennonite. He might be Amish … I never took for granted that someone was Amish.”

Marschka, who observed “some metros and wire photographers trying to find a way around to the perimeter of the cemetery, to get past the state police,” said, “It does make me flinch that some photographers are insensitive to the point where they’re possibly taking pictures that don’t really matter.” He added, “It’s tough. I’m almost embarrassed sometimes for my profession in a time like this, but it’s also a conflict because I know we have to report what happens, it’s a news event, but a clash of cultures is what it ends up being. We deal with it one day at a time, one photograph at a time.”

Locally based photographers like Marschka and Kaster had, of course, incentives — beyond simple human decency and respect — to tread carefully. “I live there,” Kaster said. “I have to go back there. If I act like a big jerk, they’re going to know my car, and they’re not going to be open to my presence. Because it’s a small world.”

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.