Graven images and Hochmut

Are cameras really theologically dangerous, or just annoying?

Are cameras really theologically dangerous to Older Order communities, or just uncomfortable?

I was at the Loveville Auction House on Friday, assigned to photograph the scene while my colleague interviewed the Stauffer Mennonite proprietor. I was fighting with the harsh shadows of the early morning light, trying to get a decent shot of the auctioneer (not a church member) through the crowd of Old Order Mennonites and Amish. A 40-something woman in a tank top and shorts – no plain woman for sure – approached me and started to lecture about taking photos of Plain People.

“Sir, are you aware that is is deeply disrespectful to take pictures of these people’s faces?”

My first unprofessional¬† inclination was to say “bullshit.” I have tons of photos of my relatives. Instead, I lamely explained that most of the people were my family members and, besides, I was invited to come take pictures. She would hear none of it. So, I unprofessionally urged her to stop acting as a self-appointed expert on the subject. To this, she replied, “Don’t be an asshole.”

While I think it’s readily apparent that taking umbrage for strangers who are more interested in bidding on flowers than hiding from the camera is the height of assholedom, I didn’t argue the point. Instead, I suddenly wondered why it was that we had been invited to the auction. Why, indeed, was this Stauffer guy seeking publicity? Did the elders know about this? Is something changing? I’ll have to find out.

It’s true that Plain People prefer not to be photographed. At my newspaper, we don’t publish their faces as a matter of unwritten policy. The theology behind this preference is the Ten Commandment prohibition (Exodus 20:4) against “graven images.” However, you’ll notice that the modern NIV translation I linked used the word “idol” instead of “graven image.” It’s clear that the intention of the passage was to prohibit idol worship, not throwaway media photography or secular art. The Old Order rationale for preference against public photography stems mostly from another theological direction these days. Stauffer Church elders, at least those I spoke with a few years ago about the subject, told me that having one or a few church members singled out in a newspaper or other publication encourages “Hochmut” – roughly translated as pride, hubris or arrogance. It breaks down the social cohesion of the community if one church member is elevated above the rest.

However, I think there is more practical motivating factor behind the photography aversion. The Old Order peoples, with their strange dress and primitive technology, have become a freak show. America loves a freak show, and America loves to exploit a freak show. Old Order exploitation has inspired some people, like the woman at the auction, to see Plain Peoples as some kind of innocent, vulnerable, agrarian ideal that must be protected. To this, I scoff. My people are not museum pieces, and they are not an endangered species (they breed like rabbits). If they can’t reconcile their difficult beliefs with the modern world, then they need to either evolve or die off. They get no special awe from me. And the supposed hatred of¬† photography is not universally shared in all Old Order communities. Plain People aren’t always opposed to photographs of themselves, just unflattering or exploitative ones.

The problem is that America could do with a few more unflattering photographs of Plain life. Its love affair with the Old Orders grates my natural father, who experienced a turbulent childhood in the Stauffer Church. In a recent email, he wrote:

Living here in Ohio , close to the large Amish community, I see and hear the tourists come and marvel at the bucolic countryside and the clean, healthful living of the Amish. I just think to myself, “Bullshit, if you only knew.”


One Response to “Graven images and Hochmut”

  1. […] their heels over a matter of scripture, just a matter of personal identity. This is just good old Hochmut raising its head again, or it is an example of Anabaptists’ historical inability to modify […]

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