Amish and Mennonite Photo Coverage in Face of Sexual Abuse

Reading the Pictures blog

June 20, 2019

Since the Catholic sex abuse scandal that traumatized a generation of churchgoers and disillusioned many more, faith groups are tempted more than ever to cover up their own cases of sexual abuse, however isolated they may be. This is especially true for minority groups like Muslims and Jews, who are disproportionately subject to fear mongering from right-wing reactionaries, but it’s also true for less populous groups that don’t want sexual abuse to dominate what already is a limited public conversation around them.

For conservative Anabaptists including the Amish and Old Order Mennonites in particular, the wider cultural reckoning activated by #MeToo is beginning to pull some communities out of their cultural separatism and into media pathways cleared by sex-offending megastars like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Bill Cosby.

As it happens, visual depictions of Amish and conservative Mennonite communities already share some traits with those of Hollywood celebrities. Many of their photographs in the press look like they were taken by paparazzi: shot from discrete angles, from the side or behind, often with long telephoto lenses. Because they hold a conviction that posing for a photograph can be interpreted as a form of pride, or as an affront to the biblical commandment against graven images, conservative Anabaptists usually resist being photographed. Faraway, detached images, then, are what inform much of the public’s visual vocabulary of Plain church communities. Those who see them at all are used to seeing them from a distance.

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