Amish culture is fascinating to me. But as a photographer, documenting the Amish is a challenge, because posing for a photograph is discouraged by their religion. It is seen by many (though not all) Amish people as an act of vanity.
The Paparazzi Approach
So, what’s the best way to capture the Amish on camera? Some of the advice I’ve read or been given by other photographers includes:
- “don’t stay in one place too long;”
- “use a long lens so you can zoom in;”
- “you have a better chance of photographing Amish children than adults;” or
- “wait until they’re not looking and photograph them from behind.”
Sorry, but I don’t feel like “stealing” moments like that. It makes me feel like a paparazzi, and it’s kind of creepy.
I know if I were outside mowing the lawn or planting flowers and someone started photographing me from a distance, it would frighten me a little.
In my experience, the best photos happen when both parties are present and aware of one another. And this is just as true for the Amish as for other subjects.
Three Tips for Noninvasive Photography
I’ve found three noninvasive ways to achieve good results in documenting the Amish:
- I feel them out first. I make sure they are aware of my equipment; then, I begin shooting at a comfortable pace and distance. Yes, I find my share of rejection — but I’ve also been greeted warmly and gotten some intimate shots.
- I ask, “Do you mind if I use my camera here?” I don’t give them a big sob story to get their approval; if they aren’t OK with me shooting them, I don’t. But I often still stay to observe; photography is about moments, whether we capture them with our cameras or not.
- I don’t obsess on only photographing people. Amish culture offers a treasure trove of subject matter besides the people — things like hand-made furniture, hand-sewn curtains, farm landscapes, lanterns, patterns of wood on the barn, even clothes hanging on clotheslines. I can showcase the beautiful simplicity of the Amish without insisting on including a reluctant subject in an image.
Enjoy the Process
You aren’t always going to leave the house to go shooting and come home with gold. That’s okay; enjoy the process, and respect what is in front of you for what it is.
Wear your camera visibly and know when to use it, and don’t touch it if you aren’t 100 percent confident that you should. Smile instead, and move on to the next possibility.
That’s been a pretty good rule of thumb for me in my work — whether documenting the Amish or any other subject.