An Amish school photo dilemma

The Amish-produced periodical Family Life has a feature known as ‘The Problem Corner’.  Readers send in questions for other readers to offer answers on.

One problem, sent in by an Amish mother in 1990, goes as follows:

“…We send our children to a public school, and I venture to guess 98% of the Amish children that attend there have their yearly picture taken.  We know it is supposed to be wrong for Amish to pose, but when will we teach our children it is wrong if we let them do it all their growing-up years?  So far we haven’t let ours take theirs, but since they are the only ones in their classroom who don’t, naturally they feel left out.  Also, sometimes the class does projects during the year with their pictures.  Then our children come home crying because they have to do something different.  I do not want to be a stumbling block to my children, nor do I want to have a holier-than-thou attitude.  Please, I would like some thoughts and opinions from others on this subject…”

The majority of Amish parents probably do not have to deal with this specific issue.  However, though most Amish children attend Amish-run parochial schools, in some larger settlements such as Holmes County, Ohio, and Lagrange/Elkhart Counties in Indiana, a significant chunk attend local public schools.

This concerned mother received a number of answers, including one from an Indiana parent:

“…It is lamentable indeed that we have this golden opportunity to have our own schools and only half of the Amish in northern Indiana exercise that privilege.  We could avoid a host of other problems, too.  With due respect to everybody, let me ask, “How do we explain that so many pictures, plus activities featuring Amish children, including boys in sports uniform, appear in our local newspaper?  Or if the county spelling champion happens to be one of ours, they display it on the school billboard for the better part of a week beside a main road?

Let’s try to keep in mind that the public schools stress pride of achievement and competition and that we have as our goals humility and cooperation…”

A few observations:  this was an interesting read as there seems to be at least three issues at work here.  The children-in-pictures issue is at the forefront, and is one which Amish hold varying opinions on.

Some Amish simply do not mind if their children are photographed.  Other Amish do not mind if they themselves are photographed–some, and perhaps this is just a handful, even do not object to posing.  And many, if asked, would refuse both.

Secondly, there is the issue of sending children to public school itself.  Clearly the responder is urging his fellow church members to reconsider the idea of public schools and is strongly implying that parochial schools would be a better solution.

Indeed, in some settlements, such as Lancaster County, all or the vast majority of Amish children attend Amish-run schools.  I don’t know where the ‘half of the Amish’ statistic comes from, but it is true that there are high levels of Amish attendance in certain public schools in this parent’s settlement.

Finally, the mother expresses her concern about not wanting to have a ‘holier-than-thou attitude’.  I think there is real concern among many Amish about having a holier-than-thou attitude.

One main reason, I believe, is because a haughty approach taken by certain Amish towards other members has been faulted in exacerbating church disagreements and even as a factor in some church splits throughout Amish history.  And of course ‘holier-than-thou’ suggest the opposite of humility.

So I believe that Amish are particularly sensitive to it.  You also sense this immediately when discussing issues of morality or faith.  Amish people tend to show a respect for differences of faith when speaking with outsiders, and typically will couch questions and responses in respectful, indirect language so as not to offend.

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    1. Matthew


      While I understand the Amish rationale against human photographic subjects, I have often wondered why the conservative Mennonite groups do not share the same understanding in this regard. When did the “photo prohibition” begin being written about, did the Mennonites ever have a similar prohibition, and if so, did they simply assimilate to the culture over time?


    2. When did Amish first ban photography?

      As for photography among the Amish, it likely became an issue fairly early as the fashion for photography arose; for example Nolt in A History of the Amish describes a division in 1872 involving an Amish Mennonite bishop who was considered ‘cool to portrait photography’.

      And Matthew interesting questions and ones I don’t have immediate answers for, especially as I must admit I am not as informed on conservative Mennonite practice. Will keep them in mind though and see what I can come across.