Picturing The Amish – Q&A with Photographer Don Burke (Part 1)

Photographer Don Burke has been taking pictures of the Amish for many years, and we have featured his photos here on the site on many occasions since 2014. Don has kindly answered some questions about his photos, interest in the Amish, what the Amish think, and more. This is part one of a two-part interview. 


Amish America: How long have you been a photographer? Are you a “professional” photographer – is this your regular job?

Don Burke: I bought my first “real” camera (35mm film) back in 1986, so I guess that is where the journey began. I am more of an occasional, freelance photographer, so I consider myself more of an enthusiast than a professional. But photography is just a sideline interest – my “real job” is pastoring a country church in the Missouri Ozarks.

Amish America: How long have you been taking Amish-related pictures?

Don Burke: As my wife and I have shared in a previous Amish America post, my interest in the Amish began with our first trip to Amish country (Holmes County, Ohio) and Lancaster County in 2010.

How many Amish communities have you visited and how many pictures have you taken there?

I have a total of over 32,000 edited pictures in my digital library to date, and the images taken in Amish communities make up at least a quarter of that.  At last count I’ve been to some 53 settlements in 11 states. And of course a number of these I’ve been to more than once.

Where are some of the specific places you’ve visited, and which ones have you enjoyed the most?

Because our early trips were focused on areas my wife had read about in Amish fiction, we’ve hit many of the “big attraction” spots – Holmes Co., Lancaster Co., Shipshewana. These were interesting, and provided us a chance to learn a lot about the Amish in places which particularly cater to the Amish-curious. And these also provided me with many photo ops.

But to be honest, the popular touristy-driven locations are really not my favorites. In fact, when visiting Berlin, Ohio (Holmes Co.) the second time, I told my wife it felt like I was in an Amish theme park. I instead prefer visiting a place where the plain folk are in a more traditional plain setting. And because of that, places like Mt. Hope (OH) and Jamesport (MO) are more what I enjoy.

Fifty-three Amish communities is a lot. What motivates your interest in taking so many pictures of so many Amish places?

There are a lot of components that go into it. Earlier on, being a Baptist pastor I am interested in learning more about the religious practices of other groups, and especially of those (like Anabaptists) that may share some common lineage with my own. And of course as a freelance photographer, taking pictures of whatever may interest me at the moment is just par for the course.

But the biggest draw is just the culture. That includes the Amish culture in general, as well as ways that local culture and practices differ from one Amish community to another. Pictures allow me to take my time to ponder and appreciate aspects of their culture without just gawking at them from my car or on the sidewalk.

Another significant motivation is that pictures are the best way to share a glimpse of the Amish world with people who are not able to see it in person. We tremendously enjoy taking the opportunity to visit Amish areas, but there are some folks who just simply do not have that chance due to time, health, distance, or other limitations. Through the years I have had so many people thank me for allowing them to share in what they will never be able to experience in person.

What do Amish think about having their pictures taken? And what do you say to the statement that Amish don’t want to be photographed?

My wife and I were getting ready to make our first Amish trip. Based upon her extensive reading about the Amish, she fore-warned her Amish-newbie freelance-photographer husband (me) that the Amish are reluctant about having their pictures taken. Then on our very first day in Amish country (Holmes Co.), meeting the very first Amish man I had ever spoken to in my life, one of his very first words to us was to ask if we wanted to take pictures of his children. He then also confided that while he really wasn’t supposed to, on occasions he would stage pictures – at times with himself in the pictures – for a particular photographer who used the pictures for postcards. So much for the idea that all Amish are against pictures.

A couple of years later we discovered an Amish B&B where we stayed with an Amish family on their 100 acre row-crop and dairy farm (Mt. Hope, OH). Not wanting to miss out on a tremendous photo opportunity, yet also not wishing to do anything that would make our hosts uneasy, I asked what was okay to take pictures of. They said we could take pictures of anything and anyone we wanted to, and just noted that the family didn’t stop and pose for pictures.

Then the following year at a huge school auction (Jamesport, MO) which brought Amish in from numerous communities even out of state, I talked with an older Amish gentleman who was likely in his 70s or even 80s. In the course of our conversation I explained that I was still new to things like this, and would appreciate any guidelines on what the Amish considered acceptable and what was not. This older gentleman summed it all up into two pointers: (1) Don’t gawk; and (2) don’t get up into anyone’s face with it (what we might call getting into their personal space). And with those two “rules,” I should be okay.

On yet another occasion I asked a once-Amish friend what was acceptable to the typical Amish person. Her reply was that many Amish will turn away when they notice they are being photographed, but for most of them it isn’t because they take issue with it personally, but rather because their bishop has made it a rule that they do it.

However, I’ve experienced a couple situations on the other end of the spectrum, too. A young Amish man in Tennessee said something to me after I took a picture of the family home. (I hadn’t realized there was even anyone around to ask.) And at another Tennessee settlement a young teen operating a hay cutter voiced his disapproval as he saw me take a few shots from inside a car my friend was driving down the nearby public road.

Someone has made this insightful observation about the Amish: The only thing that is the same among all the Amish is that they are all different. Just because one thing is one way with one Amish person or community, doesn’t mean that it is true with the next one, or the one after that. And that general principle applies to pictures, too.

So what do I say about someone who says that Amish don’t want to be photographed? When I hear such a blanket statement criticizing us – and often quite rudely – for taking pictures, well, I just know they don’t know the full picture, and I weigh their criticism accordingly. And I would ask that while I may not have come to the same final conclusion on taking pictures of the Amish that these critics have, please realize that doesn’t mean that I don’t care or that I haven’t put a lot of thought into my decision. I would hope they would allow me the latitude to do what I believe is acceptable without the criticism and rude remarks.

You mention noticing the ways that Amish communities differ from one another. What are some noteworthy differences you’ve noticed?

Oh my – way too many to detail all of them here. But some of the differences include:

Buggies – including colors of the top, open air vs. covered, electric flashers vs. kerosene lanterns, reflectors, etc.

Houses and other Buildings – Style, materials, colors, upkeep;

Schools;

Businesses – The types of businesses and/or products sold can sometimes vary from place to place;

Clothes – Differences is brightness and colorfulness, style.

 

Farm implements – Simple horse-powered vs. gasoline- or diesel-powered implements;

Other technologies:


Find Part 2 here.

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    22 Comments

    1. Dennis Coz

      Geauga County Amish

      If you are interested in the less commercialize communities, I suggest the Geauga County area. We are the fourth largest community in the world. I am an Amish taxi driver, and experience many very friendly Amish in the area. Again, some churches frown on photography, while others are more accepting.

      1. Thanks for the invite, Dennis. I’m not sure when the next time I’ll be that far east, but sounds like a place I’d like to stop and visit for a while when I do!

    2. Judy Bora

      Why do we never see anything about the Amish in Geauga county? We have the fourth largest Amish settlement in the country.

      1. Geauga County Amish community

        I think you have a point in that it gets a little overlooked sometimes due to the Holmes County community. We do have posts on Geauga County from time to time though. Here are some from the past year or two:

        https://amishamerica.com/buggy-lanes-coming-to-geauga-county/
        https://amishamerica.com/90-amish-move-another-building/
        https://amishamerica.com/humorous-amish-photo-promotes-pothole-repair/
        https://amishamerica.com/whats-amish-zoom-amishman-chester-kurtz-covid/
        https://amishamerica.com/geauga-county-sheriff-files-charges-following-large-amish-party/
        https://amishamerica.com/geauga-county-to-get-14-million-in-road-safety-improvements/

        Also here’s one from several years ago on a local Amish bakery: https://amishamerica.com/amish-maple-iced-cookie-bakery/

        There are others if you search “Geauga” in the search box at top.

    3. Loretta Shumpert

      Thank you for the great pictures

      Love every one of the pictures.
      I’m wondering how many of the settlements you’ve been to are Swartzentruber? Thoughts?

      Have you been to the Arthur, Illinois area? I was going to visit
      there when I was visiting in Peoria but a flooding rain made me turn back. Not sure if I will get there again…did you find a good bit to see? I figured about half of a day to see things? Longer?

      Thanks

      1. Loretta, thank you so much for the compliments. I’m so glad that you enjoyed the post.

        Yes, I’ve been to some Swartzentruber settlements, but the truth is I often don’t even know if a particular place is OOA, NOA, Swrtzentruber or what when I go. The resources I use for locating settlements doesn’t always detail the type of Amish that live there.

        Yes, I’ve been to Arthur (once) — one afternoon and part of the next morning. But to be honest, I had too little experience at that time in visiting the Amish, with too little time, and knowing too little about the community to do much good. Maybe I’ll have the opportunity one day to go back and try again.

    4. Katie Troyer

      Where is the location of the wraparound porch with the chickens roaming about? It looks like Tennessee to me. I used to live in Cookeville TN , although I am now living in Sarasota Florida and a photographer in Pinecraft which is where the Amish vacation during the winter months.

      1. Katie, if you are talking about the second pic under “Houses and Other Buildings,” that was in Seymour, MO. And yes, it does resemble some houses / home-places that I have seen in parts of TN.

        I bet you have lots of interesting pictures there where you live.

        1. Katie Troyer

          Yes, it is the 2nd picture.
          I do have thousand’s of pictures on file about Pinecraft and its neighborhood. I post on Facebook.

    5. Terry from Wisconsin

      Hi Don,
      Thankyou again for sharing all your research and pictures with us all. For some time now I’ve been on Erik’s case about the lack of stories on our Wisconsin Amish settlements. The offer of a bed and breakfast still stands for him if he can ever get way over here in Wisc!

      There are several settlements throughout the state just waiting to be explored. The magazine “Our Wisconsin” has a column/diary written by an Amish man by the name of Leon Yoder from Cecil, WI. Leon and his family farm and have a bakery. If you submit a story or picture and is published in Our Wisconsin your name goes in a drawing with the prize being a pecan pie from the Yoder bakery! How “sweet” is that!

      Keep up the good work you guys!
      Terry

    6. Hello, Terry. So glad you enjoyed the post, and trust the second half with be enjoyable for you as well.

      Yes, I believe I’ve seen some of your friendly “jabs” to Erik about making it over to your part of the Amish world. If it makes you feel any better, I’ve been inviting him to visit some of the many settlements in MO, too — and so far nada. But truth is I don’t get much more than a state away from home myself most of the time, so can’t say much about his lack of getting half-a-continent away. (ha)

      I’ve never been up to Wisconsin either, although the wife and I have discussed it once or twice. I am hoping to make it further north up the MS River during the really cold months for eagle pics — so who knows, might make it up that far one of these days.

    7. jim boles

      Thank You.

      Don – Thx for posting here, and for doing the interview. It was good to hear about the background of your journey.

      Are your prints for sale?
      What is your position of reuse of your images?
      Can an image be purchased for reuse?

    8. Jim, you are quite welcome. So glad you enjoyed the post.

      Yes, I freely allow my digital images to be shared without any additional permission as long as it is for personal (non-commercial, non-profit) stand-alone use. (By “stand-alone” I mean that it is not in any way connected to any product, event, etc. to imply endorsement, etc.) Images must remain unaltered in any way, and esp. must retain the watermark. Any exceptions to the above would require my personal approval.

      As far as making prints…, that becomes a bit more complex since my pictures are rarely cropped to any standard dimensions. The short version is that to date I have had no need for a process in place to handle such requests, but anyone interested in pursuing such could contact me directly and we could discuss it further. (Email: OzarkInspirations-at-hotmail-dot-com)

    9. Sunflower

      Photography

      Nice interview and the pictures are so beautiful! I was wondering if Mr. Burke develops his own pictures or if he sends them out to be done. I found about a dozen rolls of 35mm film and I can’t find a place locally that still develops it. My favorite picture is the solar panel picture! I really did “laugh out loud “ ! The photography is done very tastefully. We all should ask before taking pictures of someone; it’s just rude not to. We have a rule at powwow- picture taking is allowed of dancers in the circle (so expect to have your picture taken) but ask any other time. No picture taking during any ceremony. Most people don’t mind being photographed if asked politely. Looking forward to Part 2! Thanks Erik.

      1. Hello, Sunflower. I’m glad that you enjoyed the solar panel picture — it seems to be a favorite.

        All my photography is digital — so I do not have film that requires developing.

    10. Any sightings of the Tri-Color Triangle in use in your travels?

      Have you had any sightings of my company’s Tri-Color Triangle(tm) in use on buggies or wagons in any of the areas you have visited? If so, did you get any pictures of them (published or not) and could you share them?

      This development was originally geared for farmers but has branched out into fairly big Amish usage over the years. Please see pictures and even videos of the T-C T in use and more info about this probable-lives-saved modernization of the 60 year-old SMV emblem at:

      http://www.amish.technology (as well as safety.graphics and other sites)

      Thanks from Notre Dame and St. Joseph County, Ind., home of the “Fightin’ Amish” (part of the Bremen-Nappanee settlement) (yes, Amish do live in the county that South Bend is in and some may even have old Studebaker farm wagons still)

      1. I’m not sure what to tell you. No, I do not recall seeing your TCT; but you do realize that my attention is far more on the Amish and the proper handling of my camera and its settings in order that I can capture decent pictures of the Amish world — so it’s not likely that I would have noticed even if one had been there. If the information you request is important to you I would suggest that you look through all my Amish pictures at the link given above — that’s the best I know to offer.

        1. Thanks

          Thanks for your reply, already, Don. FYI, the biggest concentration of these new-style triangles is in Missouri around the Jamesport area, being distributed there by Bontrager Buggies. They have found the way to outsell the rest of the country somehow, even more-so than my ‘backyard’ area of Nappanee-Elkhart-LaGrange where they started with the Amish.

    11. Al in Ky

      I really enjoyed this interview with Don Burke and have enjoyed looking at his pictures in previous posts.

      I read that he has been in 53 settlements. If he has not yet been to several settlements in south central Indiana, I have a suggestion. For a good contrast through photos of differences in Amish communities, I suggest that he visit the Swartzentruber settlement in Orange & Lawrence Counties, then visit the Paoli settlement a few miles east of the Swartzentruber settlement (very conservative settlement, but not affiliated with the Swartzentrubers), then go about twenty miles east to the Salem Swiss settlement, and end up at the Salem New Order settlement (southwest of the Swiss group). In the book Plain Diversity, on page 148 Nolt and Meyers write, “It would be tempting to align the differences on a continuum formed by the ultra-conservative Swartzentrubers on one end and the progressive New Orders on the other, with the Paoli church very close to the conservative end of the spectrum and the Swiss somewhere in the middle”. They are within about a twenty-five mile radius of each other. It would be so interesting to see a photo essay about these settlements.

    12. Al, it’s great to have you along — and that you’ve enjoyed the ride so far. (ha)

      I’m afraid my adventures into IN are limited — the greater Shipshewana area, then about three areas on the way to/from there. I’ve not been to the areas you mention, but it does sound like a great study in contrast. Seems I seldom get on the road any more, and getting out of state is ever rarer (except to visit family in Arkansas), but if I do venture east I’ll have to keep this option in mind.

    13. Larry lake

      Please just post to my email address. Wondering where you live. I live in Sedalia but taught school within 25 miles of bowling green settlement so took Driver Ed kids there to experience life. Also go to Jamesport, been thru Seymour and am Windsor settlement 2-3 times a month. Also been about canton and Paris settlements. Needless to say I have pics pics pics also.
      Like to hear from you
      Larry

      1. Larry, good to hear from you. Sorry, I do not see your email address, but I’m fine with posting a reply here. I live about an hour or so SSW of the St. Louis — in the small county seat community of Potosi. That would put me about 2.5 hrs away from Bowling Green. I really enjoy the area of the state up that way — a number of Amish communities there, plus I enjoy traveling up the Mississippi River during the dead of winter to try to capture eagles fishing.

        I do not recall visiting the Paris settlement you mentioned, but otherwise I think I’ve been to the others. Jamesport is a particular favorite, with several good friends (Amish and non-Amish) there. In fact, I hope to make it over that way soon — I missed the pumpkin/mum auction this past week, but really want to get there before all the fresh-squeeze apple juice is gone for the season. And I’ve made a pass-through Sedalia a few times as I’ve taken alternate route to/from Jamesport.