Amish culture always fascinated me. From the first time I arrived in Iowa and was taken on a ride to backroads around Kalona, Iowa, to see Amish buggies and no-electricity households. People leading their lives like it was still 1785, no electricity, no cars in traditional, plain clothes, taking care of kinds and working the dirt. One house particularly stands out there. It is right at the main road from Iowa City to Kalona, busy road with 55 miles per hour limit. There is large family in this house, oblivious to the busy, modern lives passing by at all times of day and night. I could not understand what makes them stay this way and not even be curious about us, the way we are curious about them. To some degree, it is still the mystery to me, more than 10 years later. Although I have some degree of understanding now.
With the initial fascination with Amish culture came the need to learn more. Yet, there is not much in terms of the written word, and not photographs. Amish do not wish to be photographed. Posing for a photograph is a sin. And still, from time to time, a photographer will sneak there anyway (or be invited, less often. I will write about that soon). One of those sneaky ones is Robert Weingarten. His project, published in a photography book “Another America”, I find quite controversial. I was able to put my hands on the book it through great library at the University. The curiosity to see the pictures was stronger than the need not to support the project. So it lays here, on my desk, and I browse through it when I have an idle moment.
There are many images in the book I really like. Few of my favorite you can find in this post. The cans of milk. The bicycles in front of school. My favorite, the silhouette of the buggy with foreground of the fields. They tell so much about everyday lives of Amish people, without prying on their privacy. Even showing aerial or distant view of houses, with no electrical poles, is very pointy.
And then there is a series of you can say successful group portraits, three men on one, three women on the other. When you look closer, you see they are not perfectly sharp though and they are grainy, too. The reason I suppose is in the way those images were recorded. The photographer openly states that it was his “artistic decision” to photograph from the distance, using a telephoto lens. And here is where I don’t feel so great about the project anymore.
The Amish want to lead their life without being observed, without curiosity, just being left alone. Photographing them without their knowledge and permission is, in a sense, invading their private space. Decision to do that makes photographers life simpler in a sense it does not require him to engage at all with subjects. But is it ethical?
Another aspect of the project I do not understand is the decision to leave in the book a mixture of black and white and color photos. I am not sure what a handful of color photos brings to the project, other than disturbing the flow. In fact, I think all of them would look great just left in black and white, and would make a project more consistent. After all, the decision to go black and white in the first place was somehow justified, so why not just stick to it?
Overall, I find “Another America” by Robert Weingarten an important project from documentary perspective. Due to limited amount of photographs of Amish community, it contributes something to preserving their culture as it looked at the beginning of 21st century. At the same time, I find it ethically ambiguous and artistically devoted some depth.
To learn more about “Another America” by Robert Weingarten see:
- “Another America” book on Amazon
- “Another America” exhibit – short video on You Tube
- Amish gallery on the photographer web site
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