The Exodus Effect
by Robert L. Sellers, Jr.
part 1 of 2
“Old Order Amish and Mennonites forbid photography of their people, and their objection is based on the second commandment, Exodus 20:4: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’.” — Amish FAQ
I first discovered the strange world of the Amish during my undergraduate photo-journalism studies. They are simple folk really; easy-going and adept at living as the salt of the earth in a community as closed to outsiders as a castle keep can be to invaders — while still allowing tourists to visit.
Studying and capturing their life-affirming essence in pictures, I tried to tell a story others could learn from, but the Amish certainly don’t make it easy. I probably have hundreds if not thousands of pictures showing their homes, their tools, and their handiwork. Captured in color, monochrome and infrared, they show excellent woodwork, cloth goods and food items not found in such simple delicious form in even the best of New York restaurants.
I can say that with conviction after living in New York City proper for several years now. Go ahead, the next time you stop in Marchi’s on thirty-first, mention the name Geraint Lovell and you will find they know me almost too well. They make the best pasta a guy like me can get wearing a wrinkled two-day suit and desperate for a shave — I guarantee it.
Of course my hair has changed over the years. It’s shorter and thinner now, but still as rust colored as ever. Several people have told me I look like a pug, but I’ve seen pictures of pugs and I don’t know if they were being nice or simply trying to insult me.
Floating amongst the Amish as they carried on with their secluded existence, I found the reason for their shyness etched in the richly phrased words of the biblical book of Exodus. It made me stop and think about how something written more than two thousand years before the invention of photography could affect the arts so much. Somehow the same words just don’t seem to fit as well for canvas, brush and paint. Art is just something they don’t seem to focus on much.
Crime was also a rarity and dealt with quickly when it happened.
During my research at the local library, I came across a single black and white photo of shunned member David Fisher who murdered several young Amish boys before hanging himself. The photographer had managed to capture a hint of remorse, which probably came from deep religious roots Fisher thought he’d left behind.
For convenience, I’d rented a small cottage on the edge of the Amish lands. That made for fairly easy walking when I visited their farms. It also kept me in shape with good old-fashioned exercise while allowing photo opportunities that I would have otherwise missed from a car.
When my last day arrived, I was busy packing and wondering what life would hold for me in the big city. I’d been offered a job as a photo stringer for several New York City papers and was looking forward to the buzz of the Big Apple.
A soft knock at the door brought me to the eldest Beiler son, Amos. He stood at my door with a box made of light sand-colored wood. The young teenager was thin like most Amish kids, but reserved. His long narrow fingers cradled the box like it was made of soft gold. He was the only one of the family to show interest in photography, and I had enjoyed teaching the young man how film was developed and printed.
He held the box out and didn’t say a word even after I’d taken it from him. No smile, no words of farewell, just a solemn expression one might find on a relative at a funeral.
I stood holding the box as I watched the back of his buggy disappear into the distance. To say I was stunned was putting it mildly. Gifts were uncommon to outsiders and with my various attempts at photography I had made few close friends amongst the Amish. Even with them I was still an outsider to be watched carefully.
The box was handmade, with a latch lock on the front. When I popped it open and saw what was inside, I smiled. The box contained a hand-held flash. A hand crank would charge the internal battery and power the flashbulb. I gently lifted it from the box and turned the crank. The smooth feel told me someone had cared enough to maintain it.
I continued to wind it, wondering where they had found it or if they had sent for it. It was probably the only kind of flash an Amish person could use next to flash powder. Unfortunately, as far as I knew there wasn’t a camera they could use to go along with it.
I spotted a neat inscription on the side of the flash that listed the name and address of the manufacturer out in Pennsylvania along with a contact name of David King.
Holding the flash up, I thumbed the lever. It vibrated gently with a pulsing rhythm to signal when the photographer should take his picture. Four pulses later the flash went off catching me by surprise. It worked!
Shaking my head, I went back to packing and put the flash and box safely away — little knowing at the time that the simple gift was something that would eventually change my life forever.
* * *
When I next thought of the flash, I had settled into the stringer beat and become a qualified crime-scene photographer. It was a rain-soaked Thursday night when the call came for my services at a murder scene somewhere in the lower seventy-eights. I was on my way when I happened to test my camera and found the flash on the fritz ... again.
Three times in three weeks got me thinking about the online auction house EBay and the deals I could find to replace the whole damn camera. With precious time ticking away and little of it available to spend shopping for a replacement, I scrambled to find the wooden box.
Pocketing the manual flash, I headed out into the rain.
My partner Sparks didn’t say a word as he watched me wind the flash, nor when I used it at the scene. Slower than our usual automatic flashes, it still proved adequate. With the advancement in digital camera technologies, I figured light would be the least of my problems.
The female victim was the typical New York resident: young, Caucasian, mid-twenties, single with a female roommate for company. The distraught woman who shared the apartment could have been the victim’s sister. They both had long dark hair, olive complexions and figures trim and toned from a regular workout regimen.
The police weren’t calling it a ‘related’ crime yet, but over the spring and early summer the morgue had received several bodies of young women who looked a lot like the roommates at this crime scene. Once Sparks saw the victim and her roommate, he openly concluded the same thing well out of earshot of the police.
Sparks, a proud Irishman, was known for a feisty temper and the ability to get clean crisp pictures few others could. He had earned his degree after covering several riots in Detroit. His street smarts were something few were taught at any university.
Under the somewhat unique agreement with the police department, we would not use the pictures until they cleared them. It was the only way we could get past the yellow tape to take what pictures we could.
Back in our loft office, Sparks set to processing the pictures using his latest passion — the Apple iMac G5. Computers were where Sparks and I often parted ways. I preferred the evil minions of Microsoft while he stuck to his Macs as if they were the Holy Grail themselves.
I attempted to mock him by resting my feet on his desk as I slowly devoured a very tasty Macintosh apple. Having worked together as long as we had, he was used to whatever I did to belittle his choice of computers. When he was busy processing pictures, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders could run through naked and he probably wouldn’t notice. I might, but he wouldn’t. I’d probably get his attention when he processed the memory stick of pictures I’d taken to show him what he’d missed. Watching him frown, I wondered if eating the apple was finally annoying him as planned.
“Ger, what the hell do you take me for?”
I looked at his solemn expression with mild amusement. His anger didn’t scare me around his computers. He was not going to through any tantrums that might damage his Holy Grails. “A frustrated computer geek forcing himself to use inferior computer equipment. You’ve just realized this?”
His expression didn’t change as he carefully turned his flat-screen so that I could see what he was looking at. Giving in to this sudden whim of his, I lifted my feet from his desk and sat forward to study the screen.
Simple crowd shots had been placed side-by-side. People on the street outside the brownstone gathered like vultures in the night. Morbid curiosity of what happens to others when things go bump in the night and someone dies.
Copyright © 2006 by Robert L. Sellers, Jr.