The Amish and Photographs

Often, I get questions during my travels in and around “Amish Country” from visitors and even some locals of what is proper or allowable for photographing the Amish people within their and our communities. As you know, we always attempt in making it our utmost goal here at “Amish Country News” to be thoughtful and respectful regarding our articles, historical references, artwork, and all the photographs that are submitted, taken, and used in and throughout our publications. We even have a special continuing section in each issue categorized as, “Reminders”, that assists in making our readers and visitors to the Amish communities aware of some of the simple etiquettes to bring to mind. This way we all have a respected and civil guide for interaction between peoples, be it Amish, Mennonite, or English and the continuing goal of respecting each other’s privacy, space, and dignity.

In 2008, Brad Igou, a dear friend & contributor of and to “Amish Country News”, dove in-depth regarding this specific subject with his expertise in a four-part array of articles to assist and enlighten us all in these on-going questions of photographing our friends in the Amish communities. I thought it would be nice to revisit it in this and the upcoming issues of “Amish Country News”. So, without any further ado, please enjoy the first of four parts:

Part One

It is difficult to leave Lancaster County without hearing of the Amish aversion to having their photographs taken. Yet few tourists return home without pictures. The Second Commandment , concerning the making of “graven images,” is most frequently noted as the reason for the Amish attitude on the matter.

But as most locals know, the Amish often have calendars, books, magazines, and newspapers with pictures in them. Some Amish enjoy sketching, and some Amish have even become known for their folk art. Mirrors are found in Amish homes. Should not these also be considered “graven images?” It seems there may be more to all this than we may at first think.

Let’s begin with an interesting story concerning Christian Beck, who came to America from Bern, Switzerland in 1834. One of his sons brought his dog on the ship, something not allowed. During the voyage, the dog had puppies, which was discovered by the captain. But the kind captain merely selected one for his own and, “reaching into his pocket, he handed John a silver dollar and a daguerreotype (an early type of photograph) of himself. When the father heard of this, he took both the dollar and the picture from the boy. It was wrong to have the picture, according to Amish beliefs…” So writes David Luthy in perhaps the earliest story about the Amish and photographs.

   Between 1862 and 1878, general conferences of Amish ministers were held in order to reconcile some differences. In minutes from the second meeting in 1863 in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, Solomon Yoder is on record as opposing photographs, which had just recently been perfected. In 1865, the conference meeting in Holmes County, Ohio, drew up a “Discipline of 11 Articles.” Article 3 reads in part “decided not to allow…carrying hidden on one’s person photographic pictures of human likenesses or hanging them on the wall to look at in our houses.” There is apparently no mention of a Scriptural basis for this, such as the Second Commandment. Decorating homes with “large mirrors” was also deemed improper.

   In 1910, preacher John D. Kauffman of Missouri wrote of his concern over photographs. All of this seems to center on pride and vain displays in the home. One Lancaster Amishman says that around the turn of the century some newlywed Amish couples were having wedding pictures taken in photo salons. These photographs, especially if displayed in the home, demonstrated a lack of humility. It is felt that this also influenced the ban on photographs.

   In 1933, the daughter of an Amish deacon sat for a photograph. She repented, confessed, and was forgiven by the congregation. (There have been similar voluntary confessions of having been photographed as late as the 1980’s.) The deacon’s daughter gave the photos to her father to burn, but he reportedly said, “They look too lifelike, I cannot put them in the stove.”

Part Two

Earlier in the previous pages, we looked at early stories concerning the Amish and photographs. The most common explanation given for their aversion to photographs is similar to that offered by the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau… “Many Amish believe that photographs in which they can be recognized violate the Biblical commandment, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thyself a graven image.’ Please follow our lead in taking no photographs in which faces are recognizable.”

Calvin George Bachman, in his 1942 Old Order Amish of Lancaster County, offers the idea that all this may even date back to a time in Europe and Germany when people believed that you might die if you had your portrait painted. This is similar to an idea that persists even to this day among some “primitive” cultures that a photograph robs the soul. But he admits this may have nothing to do with the dislike of photos today.

 Interestingly Bill Coleman, in his 1988 book of spectacular photographs, Amish Odyssey, writes this concerning taking a picture of an Amish woman in a carriage… “I had hoped that the fog and the distance had kept me relatively anonymous. In fact, I was certain of it. Yet when the buggy passed, a woman leaned out and said very clearly, ‘You have stolen my soul.’ The hurt stayed with me a long time. Though I’ve heard it a few times since from others, it is that woman in the fog who stays in my memory.”

Although the Second Commandment is usually cited, Bachman writes that “photographs are evidence of pride, in which people are tempted to look at a likeness of themselves with self-admiration…Pictures, they say, represent simply the outward appearance, which is temporary; and in paying too much attention to the passing, there is always danger of losing sight of the eternal and the spiritual.” He also noted that the main objection was to be sitting or willingly posing for a picture. Thus, passport photos and public-school class photos including Amish children do exist, as this was “part of a program.” But now that the Amish have their own private schools, there are no class pictures.

In 1950, the Amish church of Pike County, Ohio, printed their church rules and ordinances (Ordnung) in English. It stated quite simply, “No photographs.” In 1974, at the 8th Annual Old Order Amish Steering Committee Meeting in Wisconsin, the minutes noted that when the Amish traveled from Canada to the USA, photographs were not required due to a special document the Committee had which exempted them “if religiously opposed to photographs.”

Part Three

Most visitors to Lancaster County find it difficult not to take photographs of the Amish. Yet, if there is one thing that appears to bother the Amish, it is people trying to constantly, and sometimes secretly, take their picture. (There are even stories of tourists paying or bribing Amish children to be photographed.) This aversion to photographs is often explained as being based on the Second Commandment, “Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven or in the earth beneath.” 

As most people know, Amish children often played with faceless dolls. While there are explanations for the lack of a face having to do with the doll’s becoming a “likeness,” others say it was simply a custom. Today it is common for the Amish to buy or make dolls with faces, and there are examples of Amish dolls with faces sewn or drawn on dating back to 1900.

Elmer Smith in his 1961 book The Amish Today feels a short story published in a leading national magazine led people to such a conclusion. The December 1937 Scribner’s story called “Suzie” told of an Amish girl who received a doll from her teacher as a Christmas gift. Her father removed the head and replaced it with a stuffed stocking since “only God can make people.” Smith concludes that this idea that dolls are graven images “is not nearly so widespread as most people think.”

Now we will look at what one Amishman himself has to say about it all.

Elmo Stoll, writing in the March 1987 issue of Family Life, an Amish magazine, took on the entire issue of graven images, photography, and the Second Commandment. He notes that certainly a painted portrait would be no more permissible than a photograph, that x-rays and toy animals are images, and that stamps and money have likenesses of people on them. He writes that “the second commandment is not about taking snapshots. (If it were, what were the poor people supposed to make out of it for 5,000 years before the recent invention of the camera?)” 

Part Four

In the preceding three articles on the Amish and photographs, we have looked at the Second Commandment concerning graven images as the prime explanation for the dislike of photos. But it has become clear that this may really be an attempt to provide Scriptural explanation for an idea that is central to Amish culture…humility.

Amish writer Elmo Stoll notes that there is already much concern over dress and finery at Amish weddings, and that photographic records would only compound the problem, not to mention the large sums of money spent on cameras, film and equipment. The danger here is the exaltation of the person, and Stoll feels the photograph is an attempt to “preserve and make permanent that which God has decreed shall pass away.” Stoll admits that some Amish may long for and have pictures of their children or parents. Indeed, some local photographers tell stories of Amish parents who request copies of photos of their children. Elmer Smith, in The Amish Today, tells of an Amish couple that cherished a photo of their family, hiding it under a paper lining in a drawer. When it was found by a visiting sister, it was seen as “a self-image that shows pride in oneself.” According to the story, the wife hid the photo “under the insulation of the roof outside the second-floor window. She hid it so well she couldn’t find it and asked the non-Amish friends who gave it to her if another copy could be obtained.”

   Today, many pictures are taken with a telephoto lens, as the many postcards and photo books sold locally make clear. If pictures must be taken, they should be done at a distance. And although some Amish children might allow their pictures to be taken, the thoughtful visitor might consider whether respect for this culture’s values may be more important than a cute photo to take home. While local Amish may understand the visitor’s natural curiosity, they don’t want to feel like animals in an African photo safari.

   Recently, I picked up a young Amishman hitch-hiking to visit a friend in the hospital. I asked him what he says when tourists ask, “Why can’t I take your picture?” His reply is usually, “Because somebody already did!” He added that since local guides on tour buses usually explain the dislike of photographs, he feels more comfortable in waving at them than he might otherwise.

All of this may have something to do with how friendly the Amish appear to visitors. Recently, a tourist drove to the State Police building in Lancaster to report an Amishman to his “employer” because he refused to pose with her husband for a photograph! Obviously, the best way to make contact with one of our Amish neighbors is not with a camera in your hand.

The next time you are out in your yard, imagine how you would feel if a carload of people drove up, stopped, and started snapping pictures of you, and video-taping your activities. Refraining from taking photos is more than just a courtesy. As the local Visitors Bureau notes, “While you talk and mingle with the Amish, please remember that they are not actors or spectacles, but ordinary people who choose a different way of life. Please respect their privacy and refrain from trespassing on their land or taking photographs.”

Amish author Stoll concludes, “Dust we are, to dust we shall return. Why frame and embellish and hang on the wall the pictures of this house of clay in which we live? Let us beware lest we permit Self to be exalted becoming unto us a graven image.” 

— Brad Igou