Why are These Pictures of Mennonites Funny?
Religion, humor, and benign violations
This week The New Yorker published a photo series about Mennonite families on their annual pilgrimage to south Florida, lovingly photographed by Dina Litovsky. The piece, reductively but justifiably titled Where the Amish Go on Vacation (because the more precise Where the Amish, Old Order Mennonites and Other Regional Anabaptist Groups Go on Vacation wouldn’t have read as well), follows a group of bonnet and beard-bearing Anabaptists who have finally found a place to get away from it all.
As photojournalism ambassador Melissa Lyttle pointed out on Twitter, this spectacle gets good play in local Florida media most years. Take for example The Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s gallery from last year’s Christmas Day Parade, which proudly featured the community’s influx of snowbird Mennonites.
Local photographer Thomas Bender’s photographs serve a different purpose than Litovsky’s, appealing to locals who still get excited about seeing their picture in the paper, not far-flung New Yorker subscribers with little day-to-day interest in Anabaptists or Floridians. Still, both he and Litovsky must confront their own outsiders’ gaze when they approach these subjects, which can be particularly invasive when it’s directed toward religious communities. Their photographs have to offer a fresh perspective, something beyond a tiring succession of ironic juxtapositions.
Litovsky and her local counterpart skirt this line at times. There seems to be a particular interest in depicting Mennonites using vehicles: bikes, tricycles, scooters, golf carts, and even hoverboards. This might annoy Anabaptist insiders for whom this behavior is no surprise, but it’s a fair representation on the photographers’ part.
If the average viewer thinks they know one thing about conservative Anabaptists (or anyone who “looks Amish”), it’s that they often travel in horses and buggies. Watching them use other forms of transportation is a benign violation of our expectations, and it offers an opportunity to learn something new about these communities. Funny photos play off of our expectations while showing us something we didn’t know was possible. Levity is particularly important when telling stories about religious communities because it reminds us there is more to religious life than solemn observation.
Litovsky succeeds by finding and embracing humor when it presents itself, while being aware enough of the existing visual vocabulary not to simply repeat old tropes.
Litovsky’s best photographs aren’t of Mennonites on bikes, but of muted gestures and fleeting expressions that pass between contentment and boredom, revealing a deep and rare quality of relaxation that is difficult to achieve. Most of these photos would still be interesting even if the subjects weren’t in church-mandated clothing and hairstyles. Maybe that’s a good test for religion photography in general.
Humor in representation is no insult to a religious community. The joke only becomes stale when it isn’t revealing anything new about its subject. That’s why novelty photographs of Buddhist monks taking selfies or Ukrainian priests blessing assault rifles or nuns having fun are so played out: They depict aspects of religious life that are already part of our visual vocabulary, and they’re no longer in violation of our existing perceptions. And if a photo isn’t a violation, it’s just benign.
KC McGinnis is a photographer and writer based in Iowa.