Do Amish Believe Taking A Photo Captures Their Souls?

Do Amish people believe that when you take their photos, you also take their souls? I’ve heard this idea from time to time over the years.

It has always seemed to me like an urban legend or romantic exaggeration – with perhaps just a loose basis in what Amish actually believe.

The latest case comes from a wagon tour guide in the Ethridge, Tennessee Amish community.

In a video for Nashville’s Fox17 station, he tells his riders that “you see up here, most of them believe, you take their picture, it’ll capture their soul and they won’t go to heaven…so they ain’t got no mirrors, no photographs of their loved ones, or nothing.” [italics mine]

(video removed)

But is that really what some Amish think?

If Amish feel personal photos lead to pride, and pride is a sin, and sin leads to hell, maayybe you could make the leap to saying that taking an Amish person’s photo is like taking their soul.

But it leaves out a lot in-between.

As always, it should be said that Amish are not all the same, far from it. The Swartzentruber Amish are arguably the plainest and strictest of Amish groups. So it stands to reason they might have some of the strongest feelings on photos (though that is questionable, as I’ll show below…).

You do see plainer Amish speak in heavy religious terms sometimes. For example, in one instance, a Swartzentruber Amishman described a smoke detector as “a devil on the wall.” Other Amish (plain though not Swartzentruber) have called livestock tagging “the mark of the beast“.

Update: I should have also noted here that you may hear the Second Commandment  – “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” – as reasoning against photography, cited for example in this court case where Amish sued the government over a US residency photo requirement, or in this case where Mennonites and Amish in Virginia were provided a non-photo alternative to the traditional ID card.

I asked Karen Johnson-Weiner, who has had personal relationships with Swartzentruber Amish for decades, and has written about them in multiple books, if she’d ever heard this “camera takes your soul” idea expressed by Swartzentruber Amish people. She replied:

I’ve never heard that, Erik. I have heard different Swartzentrubers say that taking their pictures would break the camera! That “capturing the soul” seems to be from some version of a pan-ethnic urban legend or something–like the idea that quilters put in a deliberate mistake because only God is perfect. This latter one I first heard in connection with Navajo woven rugs, and then later from an English woman talking about Amish quilts.

Karen adds this, which I liked:

Most Swartzentrubers just ask folks not to take their pictures, but when someone’s picture appears in a newspaper (reporter photographing a barn raising, for example), that person will want a copy to keep.

Officially Amish are not going to seek photos, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate them on some level.

Also, we might assume that just because the Swartzentruber Amish are likely the most conservative Amish, that they would be the most photo-shy of Amish.

However, photo evidence online suggests that at least some of them are not as camera-averse as we might suppose.

In one instance, Swartzentruber Amish in southeast Minnesota permitted a photographer to take extensive photos, including one of an Amishman showing off a fish he’d caught (visible 20-some photos into this slideshow).

In another example, the Swartzentruber people in Fort Fairfield, Maine allowed themselves to be captured doing various activities, including farm tasks, ice cutting, and driving a buggy (though no faces) for a 2013 magazine article.

Karen does add the disclaimer that maybe the Ethridge folks are different.

But if I had to guess, I would lean to the idea that this is more an urban legend situation – something that sounds intriguing to tell tourists – than the Amish in Ethridge actually expressing that they fear losing their souls if you snap a pic of them.

But, I’m certainly open to hearing if I am wrong, if that belief is actually present in this community.

The Community

Briefly setting the photo topic aside, this is a nice video about Tennessee’s best-known Amish settlement. While yesterday’s video showed us an Amish tour buggy driver, here we see an English one, Sam Pollock, taking a wagon-load of guests through the settlement. In Ethridge they drive these oversized tour wagons, pulled by a sturdy pair of horses.

They are about the biggest horse-drawn tour transport I have ever seen. Ethridge is the largest Amish community in the South (well, depending if you consider Kentucky Southern or not), and draws a good amount of tourists.

The Amish for their part are quite tourist-friendly here. It is really fun to visit the many farms and stands selling produce, crafts, canned goods and more throughout the settlement. The local Amish Welcome Center has put out an Amish business map in the past, and I assume they are still doing that.

Finally, a couple of things that jumped out in this video. For one, there are faceless dolls for sale here (a recent topic of discussion here on the site):

The other – it looks like these Amish are using the PVC pipe visibility solution that was tested in the Lodi, Ohio Amish community two years ago, after a long history of accidents in that Swartzentruber community:

It’s an odd look, but no matter – hopefully that’s keeping them more visible on the road.

Amish & Photos: Different Strokes

Returning to the main topic: Amish don’t seek out photos, and most don’t like a camera stuck in their faces. Amish do have differing attitudes when photography does happen.

Some do not much mind at all. I’ve taken posed photos more than once with a good friend who is Amish. He knows I’m not going to publish and share them around however. Some do not want any sorts of photos taken, or at least will not consent to them if asked. Others are fine with shots that are unposed, or taken from a distance.

And as Karen’s comment suggests, some (many?) Amish do have an appreciation for personal images (whether they agree to them verbally, or not) captured by this nearly-200-year-old technology called photography.

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    20 Comments

    1. OSIAH HORST

      Souls Captured?

      A simple answer should suffice – NO! It might have something to do with the 2nd commandment, though.

      1. 2nd Commandment

        Thanks for noting the 2nd Commandment Osiah. Left out in the original post, I should have included it. Now updated.

    2. MARRIAGE

      Hi Karen… I was just wondering if brought up in an Amish community when the children become adults and seek out a wife or husband, do they leave their community to avoid inbreeding within? I just wondered if they would find a spouse And then bring them back to their own community?
      Thanks!!!

    3. Lydia Good

      NO, I don't believe it

      I was raised Amish and never in my life heard anything like this. Not saying it couldn’t happen in the more orthodox churches. I think the tour guide was just spitting out words. My parents had pictures of themselves when they were at Ocean City one time. In swimming suits, no less. These pictures disappeared sometime in my teenage years. I think my dear mother had a pang of guilt. What IF someone from the church would see them? I used to love to look at them. I have a picture of my mother when she was 17, taken by a professional at his studio. My parents never had a problem with cameras or having their picture taken. My dad’s picture was in the paper numerous times. He thought it was hilarious.

      1. Thanks for sharing that, Lydia. I like stories like those, they feel very human. Sometimes I’ve felt bad that some Amish friends who have smaller children won’t have photos to look back upon when they are grown up. Not trying to put my frame of mind onto them, but it seems like just about everyone enjoys and appreciates baby pictures and the memories they evoke.

    4. Dollie deaton

      That reminds me of another urban legend. You can keep people out of a funeral home and attending a funeral if you wish. I thought this was gospel until my youngest daughter became a mortician.

    5. Noach Shon

      no.

      it has more to do with not wanting a lot pf public disclosure. keeping to one’s community. No Mirrors? Hard to get out Old Testament beard without one.

    6. Walter Boomsma

      Generalities...

      All generalities are false. (Including that one?) I suppose our fascination with the Amish–or for that matter anyone who is “different”–leads us to make sweeping statements in our attempt to understand. But what we too often fail to understand is that diversity and differences are part of the human condition. That is true both within and without the Amish Community.

      The challenge we face is tolerance and that’s not something we are getting better at as a society. Respect for those differences would be awesome, but I’ll settle for tolerance.

      I suspect we could hear a lot of different reasons why some Amish prefer not to be photographed. I’ve heard many variations–photos are okay provided they are not posed, not full frontal portraits, etc. While it is admirable to be curious and it might actually be admirable that we want to understand, too often that turns into us deciding what the Amish should and shouldn’t do.

      “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things charity.” — an expression that can be traced to the reformation when theological debates often became more than a bit intense and people were put to death for believing something different.

      Personally, the photo question is, I think, part of the larger understanding of the Amish mindset. Beliefs can be fuzzy things… and sometimes hard to explain because they are about the heart, not just the head.

      Occasionally, while on social media I long for a belief that it posting photos of meals in restaurants would result in some negative consequence.

    7. Lisa Maikranz

      Photos

      Whether you ask or not just DONT do it ~ it’s disrespectful- some of my best friends are Swartzentruber Amish, I take tons of pictures of their farm, inside their home, the Animals, and even videoed a Buggie ride we took. But they know I would NEVER take their photo. Tourists just snap photos of them all the time ~ I guess you can say it’s at pet peeve of mine because it’s intrusive and disrespectful. I will be spending a week on their farm in Upstate NY in September and I can’t wait. Swartzentruber homes are so diff. than the typical Amish home, I love Looking back at my pictures every year!

      1. Sounds like you have a great relationship with them, Lisa. Just wondering, do they mind if you take photos of their children? Your comment reminded me of a video from a little while ago of the inside of a Swartzentruber home, which has footage of the children: https://amishamerica.com/inside-swartzentruber-amish-home-video/

        1. Lisa Maikranz

          Photos

          I suppose it depends on the family but everything I have learned is no photos of any of their faces the same rulesc apply young or old. Some people don’t understand it is highly frowned upon and considered disrespectful and the littles “kinder” are not really aware of the rule so they would probably not pay attention.

    8. Mike Sparks

      Their souls?

      During one of my picture taking excursions, in the West Salem, Ohio Swartzentruber community, I stopped on the road and had a nice conversation with an Amishman. He asked what I was doing and when I said, “taking pictures”, he seemed very interested. He stood by my car and we scrolled through all of the photos on my IPad. As we looked at them, he told me who lived there, or who’s field that was, etc.

      I asked if I could take a picture of his milk cans, his buggy/horses and his farm. He said it would be fine as long as he was not in the picture. He also asked, “if you ever print off a copy on paper, I would like to have one”

      1. Lisa Maikranz

        Yes, it’s funny but they love seeing pictures of their place ~ I generally make a scrapbook and send it to them with all of the photos I took during my week stay!

    9. Bob the Quaker

      Selfie

      Although many Amish now have cell phones, I certainly have never seen one do a selfie. 🙂

      I’ve always heard it was because of the 2nd Commandment “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”

      One of our Amish friends said she didn’t mind a candid photo, but would never pose for a picture.

    10. Ludmila Lebedeva

      Need help

      Hello,
      I write you with a hope that you will help me.

      My name is Lucy Lebedeva and I live in Florida in Indian Harbour Beach. I have a serious disease collagenous colitis . Only after 14 years of disease they found this diagnose.
      It is an autoimmune disease and they treat it with pills –hormones But I have chronic headache every minute and with these pills I cannot even get up from the bed. My mother was a physician and knew herbs but it happened so way that I cannot now use herbs.
      I want to try chicken gizzard’s lining. It is a yellow cover of a chicken gizzard, when they clean gizzards they take of this lining and throw away it. In folk medicine this lining at first after cleaning must be dry on air and after they used it for different diseases. I have no choices with my colon, sometimes physicians can suggest only a surgery, to remove a colon.

      I read and saw a movie about Amish people, very honest and really very good people. I tried to speak with Amish production chickens firms that I found on internet, but they did not give me information about small farms that raise and produce chicken for meat. I think that may be somebody from Amish people have mercy on me and can help me, sell me these gizzard’s lining. But I do not know how I can contact with them. Please help me to find them.

      Thank you.

      Lucy

      My phone number is 321-622-5897

      lebedeva47(at)brighthouse(dot)com

      1. Hi Lucy, very sorry to hear about your condition. Unfortunately I don’t know of Amish selling the linings you mentioned, and I am also wondering since you are in Florida, if it wouldn’t be a better idea to search for a non-Amish local farm or chicken raiser that might sell it? The reason is that there is only one Amish community in the state and it’s not a traditional farming-style community. It might be simpler for you to find a more local provider. Sorry I don’t know of an Amish solution to this (maybe someone else here does?). In any case I hope you’re able to find a solution and get to better health soon.

    11. Al in Ky

      I visited the Ethridge settlement last September and they still had the Amish business map which was very helpful. It surprised me at the large number of Amish homesteads which were listed in the business map — well over one hundred selling one or more things. I also attended the Amish produce auction which was very interesting. I would suggest anyone visiting the Ethridge settlement during produce auction season to go to the auction. An Amishman told me they also have a large consignment sale every fall which is very good — I think in October, but not certain of the date.

    12. J

      Surprise

      Yes. Some Amish do take selfies.

      Usually it is the younger generation that does so. Maybe with the boyfriend or girlfriend or having fun on vacation.

      The older generation does not seem to be into the selfie. Maybe because they are baptized. Maybe because they did not grow up in the smart phone/social media/internet world like the younger Amish have.

      There are some Amish who will stand for a picture, look into the camera, and smile. Young or old, baptized or not.

      Some will do this to help promote their business as they know their picture will end up in the paper or advertisement.

      For some, Amish is also a business brand. The beard and suspenders ‘look’ with horse and carriage are like business logos. These images can help draw in customers or tourists. And they are aware of this.

      1. Lisa Maikranz

        Depends

        It depends on what order Amish they are and MANY people mistake mennonites for Amish which is a completely different set of rules. I personally have never met any Amish that want or allow pictures of themselves including the teens in fact have even been said yes you can take a picture but not of me let me move over. I found in Ohio and Lancaster many Mennonite people who want you to believe they are Amish after all that’s what the tourist come to see. Check the stores you go in for made in China tags etc…

    13. Geo

      respect

      Anyone, plain or English, who can imagine themselves as the other person should have no problem understanding this. Do YOU want anyone (let alone strangers), taking YOUR picture?
      As lisa says: “Whether you ask or not just DONT do it ~ it’s disrespectful”.