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.


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?”


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