October 25, 2007

The grieving Amish and photography

I always thought about them in their houses or their barns long after I'd visited. What, I always thought, were they doing right now in their curtainless houses? Were they sleeping, resting up for the morning's milking, or praying by their beds?

The Amish have always enamored me. I don't like to think I've been some hokey tourist, but rather an outsider who longs to understand the very real lives they lead. I think many people flatter themselves, like I do.

We're probably just those nosy people at the end of their drives or pointing at them through windows as we pass them in our Jettas.

And as a journalist, I'm even more aware of the divide. I'm currently writing about the murders at Nickel Mines last year. I'm assessing the photographers' and editors' decisions to capture the Amish people's grief in the context of their dislike of being photographed due to religious beliefs.

I'm finding the Washington Post and the New York Times stories most compelling because they both did slide shows, and the Post's ombudsman even commented on the topic. I have a lot for my essay, but my answer is not fully formed.

Some of the photographers in this Columbia Journalism Review piece said the Amish didn't mind, but I keep saying to myself, they didn't really have a choice, did they? The photographers simply "shoot first, ask later," according to one photographer interviewed.

I believe that the story must have been documented, but the slide shows seem almost like an exploitation. The pictures are rationalized by the editors in the stories for their relevance to the news event of the funerals and such, but I think a lot of it was playing up the contrast between the two worlds: ours and theirs. It's bankable stuff, to put it bluntly, and hiding it under the guise of "just the facts" or in this case "just the photos, m'am" reporting is a ready excuse for some really poignant pictures about another world at its lowest point.

Some photographers did tread lightly, but the need to get those shots really permeates this, and I think the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics concerning minimizing harm to those in grief was trampled upon in some cases to get these photos.

Posted by Amanda Cochran at October 25, 2007 12:05 AM | TrackBack

Amanda, I like you have a different perspective of journalism in this article. It has been my experience that items like the pictures of Amish people and of stories about people at thier worst are what give journalists such a bad reputation. News is news but there is a fine line between reporting news and exploiting people. In general most people care only about the almighty dollar and "me" and "mine." Its refreshing to see someone, a journalist at that, actually concerned with others, rather than how they can make thier next dollar.

Posted by: Amy at October 25, 2007 2:13 PM

I think my contention with the Amish coverage is the exploitation of their poignant life and how it looks in photographs. They are simple. They are plain. They are different. And the photographers capitalized on that to an extreme, even by heading to one of the girls' funerals in a helicopter, which I seriously reemed out in my Ethics paper about this story.

Religious stories are my favorite because religion (or the lack thereof) still differentiates, in a large sense, one person from another. We are unique and different, but that doesn't give us license to exploit our differences for the bottom line.

Or maybe I just need to get a job and stop being naive. :-)

Posted by: Amanda at October 30, 2007 7:56 PM

I can understand the photographer who said "Shoot first, ask questions later." One hopes for professionalism in shooting people who did not ask to have their lives made public. Still, if you DON'T take that wonderful shot, your editor will never be able to decide to use it. I'd probably try to take more shots with hats blocking people's faces, of people looking away from the camera, shots of small figures surrounded by striking scenery, or close-ups of details (an old, weathered hand clutching the hand of a child as the two walk across a field, that sort of thing). All media are restrictive in some way, and the added restriction of trying to get a good shot while also respecting the privacy of the people involved can be a great opportunity for creativity.

I agree the helicopter is excessive.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at October 31, 2007 9:16 AM
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