The composition was perfect; the light, dawn’s slanting, peachy gold; the palette, harmonized and gorgeous, soft blues and luminous greys with fleeting touches of pink; the women and girls in a close gaggle, curious, contemplative, their dresses drawn up around their knees as they waded at the water’s edge. Camera in hand, I resisted temptation.
A woman I imagined their matriarch stood back from the water, sensibly shod, a blanket against the morning chill wrapped around her shoulders. She watched the younger group with a quiet reserve that seemed to share in their appreciation if not their animation. As I walked by we exchanged nods, shy smiles and a cordial Good morning!
On my return trip, the group was still there, although more dispersed. One woman stood alone, exactly as I had seen her last. Others had moved along, exploring the shore. But the scene was disrupted by another passerby, her iPad Mini aloft, filming the group, waving her hands as if to say Keep Doing That. The youngest girl reached out for the nearest hand and ducked her head, no longer happily lost in the moment, but intruded upon, her privacy invaded. I wondered what the matriarch thought.
Would iPad Woman have done the same thing if the group weren’t Amish?
I think not.
It’s a funny thing, our willingness to commodify and strip of their humanity those we consider picturesque. As tourists, we do it all the time, gleefully snapping pictures of Colorful Ethnic Minorities In Their Habitat without much regard for how they might feel about it, how we might feel, were the tables turned. I remind myself I will feel this same urge when we travel in Asia this winter.
And what of the image? If I could really paint, I would love to recreate my memory of the first scene. It was so beautiful, so evocative. Would that, too, be an intrusion?
I like to think not.
I like to think that I could honor the scene as I experienced it without intruding on the people involved as they experienced it. Something about having not appropriated their moment, in the moment, for myself. Something about the effect of distance, in both time and place. Something about the power of interpretation and our ability to create from experiences that are unique — and uniquely our own.
What they saw and experienced was not, in the end, what I saw and experienced. Can I make something of it without taking something from them?
I’d like to think so.