Documenting the Amish: Lessons in Noninvasive Photography

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

10 Responses to “Documenting the Amish: Lessons in Noninvasive Photography”

  1. We have no communities like the Amish in Australia (that I'm aware of at least!) and yet they still fascinate me. Your photos are a beautiful glimpse into their lives. I love that you are so respectful too, great encouragement for others.

  2. Good article with some very good points. Some I've never considered before. thanks...

    Love the photos as well... 🙂

  3. Good article and advice. Being conscientious is a good rule of thumb, and it's overlooked by too many photographers. Whether you agree with their religion/beliefs, have respect anyway, especially when you're on their turf. Great photos, as usual-

  4. Thanks for the tips.....I will try use them in general...not just with the Amish.

  5. Thank you so much for reading!

  6. Michelle,

    This is so interesting! I too, am intrigued by the Amish culture...I didn't even know they existed until we moved to Ohio!

    I especially liked what you wrote about how photography is about capturing moments, with or without a lens. Well said!

  7. I think being noninvasive should be talked about more often and thank you for doing so. So many photogs seem to go for the in your face approach far to often.

  8. I think I should get used to experience this tips, especially number two. thank you so much for sharing this, michelle.

  9. Michelle, interesting piece on a question that poses issues for more thoughtful photographers. I must recommend filmmaker Dirk Eitzen's piece "Reel Amish: The Amish in Documentaries" in the book The Amish and the Media. Eitzen discusses three approaches: pushiness, "poaching", and focusing on children and young adults, with the conclusion that what he terms "poaching" is one that Amish prefer and accommodate, at least to a degree.

    I frequently feature photos of Amish on my site, an have written a bit on the issue myself, for example here at Eitzen's piece is one of the most thorough I have seen, however, and he has a good bit of experience, having made the Amish documentary The Amish and Us.

    But I think the ideas you offer are sound ones. The reaction you receive often differs by how conservative the person might be--as with many things Amish, there is a diversity of opinion on photography. I know Amish who don't mind appearing on camera, and also ones who won't allow their children to be shot. Recently a number of Amish have even appeared in news pieces and other documentary media. Some refuse to have photos taken for IDs, while others don't have a problem with it. As you point out, there are a number of ways to approach the Amish on photos. Great shots by the way!

    Erik Wesner

  10. AFAIK from talking to Amish in DE, PA, IN
    religion has little to do with it.
    It is more about individual district rules & what The Bishop decides is proper behavior.
    Photography is seen by some congregational leaders as distracting from accepted daily routine.
    Also, I find parents nearly always give permission to photograph children.

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