The Amish, through a long lens

Amish Buggies 002If you want to see an incredibly moving collection of Washington Post photographs of Amish believers mourning the deaths of the five girls lost in the Lancaster County school massacre, then click here. Of course, the issue is whether you should want to see these kinds of photos at all, considering that the Amish prefer not to photographed at all, especially during such personal, holy times. Should mainstream journalists have honored their wishes and left them alone?

Good question. This past weekend, ombudsman Deborah Howell of the Post focused on this question in her column. There were readers who were offended, especially by an image of a family approaching a gravesite carrying a small casket. It was taken from a helicopter that circled near, but not over, the scene.

Mary Ann Kirkpatrick of Alexandria wrote: "The Amish community ... has suffered an unspeakable loss. While the photos in the paper ... are tasteful and have not sensationalized the story, they are in violation of the religious beliefs of the Amish people. They consider images of themselves to be 'graven images.' ... At this highly distressing time for the community, I would have expected a paper of the caliber of The Post to honor those beliefs and not cause more duress."

Howell noted that the newspaper's photographers, following the advice of local residents, worked in public places -- sidewalks and roads -- and used powerful telephoto lenses. They tried to take photos from the back and the side, to avoid face-to-face contact with those who were mourning. Some of the Amish, when approached, were willing to cooperate to some degree.

I thought this section of the column was helpful:

The relationship between photography and the Amish is more complex than it seems, according to David Weaver-Zercher, an expert on the Amish who is also an associate professor of American religious history at nearby Messiah College.

"I'm sure they were bothered by the intense news scrutiny," he said. Although the Amish near Lancaster, Pa., are "quite accustomed to being photographed" by tourists, different Amish people have different levels of resistance. But "they do not take pictures of one another because images represent pride. The Amish don't pose for photographers.

"Many Amish people are uncomfortable even being asked to take their photograph -- not wanting to grant permission but also not wanting to be too assertive in expressing their displeasure. Some actually prefer that they not be asked, so that it doesn't put them in a difficult situation. Many Amish think it leaves their conscience unsullied by not being asked."

Howell noted that the controversial graveside photo taken from the helicopter was supposed to have printed at the bottom of page one. Post Executive Editor Len Downie made the call to move it to the top of the page.

Was this a tribute to the Amish or a violation of their faith? That is a hard question. I'm glad that Howell heard the question and honored it with a response.

By the way, the photo with this item is not from the Post.

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