Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thou shalt not photograph the Amish June 14, 2011

TEMPTATION TEMPTED ME on Saturday afternoon, wrapping her slippery fingers around mine, tightening her grip, nudging my index finger toward the shutter button.

But Right resisted, reminding Temptation, “Thou shalt not photograph the Amish.”

The battle waged for a good 15 minutes on a grassy wedge of land along a main route through Osakis, southeast of Alexandria.

Here quilts, clipped to clothesline strung between a light post and trees, drew my husband and me off the road. When we turned onto the side street and I spotted the black buggy, I couldn’t believe our luck. I’ve wanted, always, to encounter the Amish up close and photograph them.

The Amish buggy parked at a roadside market in Osakis.

But then Right niggled my conscience: “Thou shalt not photograph the Amish.”

At least without asking, I thought, although Temptation urged me to click the shutter button of my camera immediately and then ask. But I didn’t. “Is it OK if I take your picture?” I inquired of the bonneted mother cozied with her two black-bonneted daughters on a blanket spread upon the grass.

“No.”

What did I expect? That she would say “yes” and smile for the camera. So I tried again. “How about if I photograph you from the back?”

“No.”

I tried for the third time. “Can I photograph your quilts and baked goods?”

The Amish mom agreed, as long as I didn’t include her or her two pre-teen daughters in my photos. But I was still tempted, oh, so tempted, to sneak them into the images. Would they notice if I edged the camera lens over the clothesline while photographing the quilts?

Right prevailed and I photographed the hand-stitched blankets, the rows of baskets, the preserves and homemade noodles and that black buggy, minus its passengers and minus the horse that was tethered in the shade of trees behind nearby buildings.

I should also have photographed the fly swatters and woven rugs, but I didn’t want to push my luck, appear too pushy and offend these Amish.

Beautiful, hand-stitched quilts stretched on the clothesline.

Preserves and a few baked goods remained when we arrived at this mini Amish market late Saturday afternoon.

This close-up photo shows the detailed stitching in these hand-stitched Amish quilts.

Hand-woven baskets for sale by the Amish.

All the while the two young girls watched me like a hawk. I could feel their eyes following me, boring into my conscience. I wondered what they were thinking. Were they interested in my fancy schmancy camera, or did they simply wish me gone?

Were they worried that I would photograph them, thereby stealing their souls or creating a graven image, or whatever reason the Amish have for shunning photos of themselves?

I remained so focused on possible covert photo ops that I failed to notice details, except those black bonnets, the blue and plum dresses and the wide, plain copper-colored wedding band on the mother’s ring finger (which I wanted to photograph). I wish I had noticed their shoes.

I also failed to ask many questions of the trio. I learned that they live 10 miles east of Osakis, that the buggy trip takes an hour and that they come to town every Saturday (not in winter, of course) to peddle their goods. All of this the mother shared in a brogue that I couldn’t place, but which reminded me of a far-away homeland, of the thick tongue of an immigrant.

While the mother spoke, her two daughters perched, respectful, still and mute as statues, until I looked directly into the brown eyes of one and asked whether she had made any of the market merchandise.

“Cookies,” she blurted, her face blossoming into an appreciative smile.

I wished in that moment, more than any, that I could have photographed her happiness, shown you the delight blooming upon that young Amish girl’s face when I paused to acknowledge her presence, to include her, to boost her self-confidence.

But I could not. “Thou shalt not photograph the Amish.”

Not on this June Saturday afternoon in Osakis.

The one item we purchased, a superb (except for the burned crust), flavorful $6 pie oozing with tasty red raspberries. FYI, there were no cookies remaining or I would have bought some.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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22 Responses to “Thou shalt not photograph the Amish”

  1. Amy Says:

    I feel your pain. At Mill City Farmers Market every Saturday, there’s an Amish couple selling corn meal and whole wheat flour (both of which are the best EVER), and they’re so nice, and I’d so love to take their picture. But I don’t.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      The thing is, in all honesty, I am still torn about my decision to ask. If I hadn’t asked, I would only have taken photos of the Amish from the back. Not their faces. No, I couldn’t do that without feeling undeniably guilty.

  2. Amy Says:

    Exactly. I’ve thought about doing the same thing at Mill City Market. Here you have this lovely Amish couple in what often looks like hipster central. I think–a side shot? I could sidle around to the rear of the booth? But I still feel like I would be awfully disrespectful.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, a side shot would be even better. When I was semi-hidden behind that clothesline of quilts, I was really tempted to ease the camera lens a tiny bit higher. When we were pulling away in the car, I could have rolled down the window and gotten a shot. But those girls were watching me ever so closely and I could not do it.

      You think like me: Respect.

  3. Bernie Says:

    Good girl! No photographing the Amish. I could understand where you would want to. The quilts and baskets are so pretty.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I don’t know if I was so “good,” as I was sure tempted and might have snapped the camera given the opportunity.

  4. JDaniel4's Mom Says:

    The picture you took were amazing. I love that you asked them if it would be okay.

    Thank you for you wonderful comment on Bungalow ’56’s post.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      It was the right thing to do, to ask.

      As for the comment on the Bungalow 56 post, I meant every word of it. Savor the moments.

  5. Nina Hedin Says:

    The amish pie is making my mouth water! And those baskets are gorgeous. How much was she asking for the quilts? Imagine the time it takes to hand stitch something like that. Wow.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      That red raspberry pie is one of the best pies I’ve ever eaten with fruit that was sweetened to perfection. Finished off the last piece last night.

      The star quilt highlighted in the photo was nearly $500. Well out of my price range, but certainly not over-priced given all of the work and time invested in creating it. I didn’t check the other prices.

  6. wendy Says:

    I came across your post searching google for Amish quilting designs or something along those lines. I didn’t know there was some taboo for the Amish regarding pictures, so then I googled that. I’ve never had an urge to photograph Amish people when I see them and now that I know why they don’t want to be photographed it would never cross my mind to attempt to photograph them. I just keep wondering why you even asked or considered taking photos from their back knowing their preference to not be photographed.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      That’s a good question, Wendy, and the answer is not simple. First, I’ve always been fascinated by the Amish and their way of life. As a photographer and writer, I like capturing slices of life via stories and images and sharing those with readers. I was aware that the Amish (most of them) do not want their faces photographed up close or so they are identifiable. I did not know whether they would allow other photos of themselves (whether side or back views), so I asked. They allowed me to photograph their buggies and merchandise as long as they were not in the frames.

      I have heard, and I haven’t verify this, that some Amish will allow their faces to be photographed.

  7. Erin Pluimer Says:

    I am so glad I stumbled upon your blog. I, too, am fascinated with the Amish. I recognized these photos from down town Osakis. I went there this past Fall. The woman was reading while I pulled up. I am also an avid reader, so I knew that would be my “in.” Right away, I could tell that the woman was going to be friendly and open to questions. I wonder if it was the same family that we’re speaking of because this family also wore plain copper bands on their weddings fingers, which is unusual since most Amish do not wear jewelry. After a while, two younger sisters returned to the stand from the nearby gas station. I also made eye contact with both of them and they were delighted to tell me that they had 17 children in their family. We chatted for nearly 30 minutes as other customers came to purchase items. I told them that I was looking for an Amish gentleman that makes cabins. Turns out it was their father. She told me how to get to their home and said that her parents were both home and would welcome me right in to their home. I could hardly believe it! They’re usually so private. She was right–her father invited me right in to his home. It was a surreal experience. I can’t wait to return this Spring. Thanks for this beautiful blog about your Amish experiences.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I’m glad you came upon Minnesota Prairie Roots also, Erin. I expect you met the same Amish family as me. It sounds like they were very welcoming to you. Next time I will ask even more questions and perhaps see if I can also get an invitation to visit an Amish home.

      A return trip to Osakis is indeed in order as I also loved the quaint ice cream shop in town.

  8. Erin Says:

    Hi Audrey! Have you had the opportunity to visit the new Amish community near Mora? I have been there a few times and they are so kind. Their produce was out of this world!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      No, I haven’t, Erin. Actually, I was made aware of this new settlement about a year or so ago by someone familiar with the area. Thank you for stopping by to tell me, though.

      • Erin Says:

        There are only about 10 families living there. Many of them have built pole barns and are living in part of them. I imagine once they establish themselves, they’ll be able to build homes. It’s not as picturesque as Harmony, but I love to support them in any way I can.
        I haven’t made it back to visit the Stutzman family in Osakis but it’s on my fall list of things to see/do!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        How wonderful, Erin, that you are welcoming these new Amish families to Minnesota by supporting them. We were back in Osakis two weeks ago and saw the Amish family marketing their goods on the corner. Didn’t stop this time, but instead explored downtown Osakis. Posts will be forthcoming. Love that town, but still did not have enough time to see all I wanted to see.

  9. Anne Says:

    I actually think I know the Amish family you were wanting to photograph. They have a farm between Sauk Centre and Long Prairie. I used to buy milk from them. They told me that they sold pies in Osakis. I have to admit, there were many times I wished to take a photo of one of their teenage daughters, or one of their little boys. The children are very curious. Every time I would go to buy milk or eggs, there would be faces peeping through windows watching my every move.


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