Manayunk Photographer Reconnects with Amish Roots

Tessa Smucker focuses on the art of the simple life.

Photographer Tessa Smucker

My parents were born Amish, and both come from typically large families—each with seven siblings. My grandparents on both sides left the most orthodox group when my parents were young, but they stayed close to the Amish and Mennonite communities. I grew up in the heart of Lancaster County, near the little towns of Gap and Intercourse. My earliest memories include hours of outdoor play with our next-door neighbors, an Amish family that lived beside ours for 28 years. My buddy was Gideon. We played horse-and-buggy using my mother’s garden cart.

We continued many of the Amish traditions, like growing our own vegetables. Each spring, we’d plant, and throughout the summer, we’d pick onions, corn and peas. The hottest days of summer always seemed to fall on corn-husking day. My mom’s sisters, along with her mother, would come to my house at sunrise to beat the heat, and husk and package every ear they could. The bags would then be frozen, and we’d enjoy them throughout the year. Fall is apple season. We’d set aside a day to wash, peel and condense the fruit into applesauce—though the 100 jars Mom once made have dwindled a bit since my siblings and I moved away.

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My parents often spoke in Pennsylvania Dutch to keep their conversations secret. Our limited understanding of the language pretty much guaranteed that we could never keep up, though my grandmother tried her best to teach us. For the first 20 years of my life, she lived in a house right beside ours. Our crazy “modern” lives always shocked her. Though no longer Amish in her later years, she held closely to the values of her youth. She passed away in 2012, and her influence will continue to guide my life.

I remember being pulled out of school early the day of the deadly shootings at a little Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pa. In the following weeks, the Amish community chose to forgive the shooter and reach out to his wife and family in the aftermath of the tragedy. In a conversation with a neighbor around that time, I expressed how I thought a lot people might see that as odd or backwards. She looked me in the eyes with an almost confused expression, saying, “Well, it’s just what we do.”

This culture has shaped who I am. In the fall of 2010, I moved to Philadelphia to pursue a photography degree at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. Although I’d experienced life outside of Lancaster before coming to Philadelphia, nothing could’ve prepared me for the move. As the years passed, I fell in love with city life. I like the energy and activity that seems to meet me at every corner. But there are still days when I need to escape back to the rolling hills of Lancaster County.

History comes down to what people deem is important enough to record. As an image-maker, I’ve taken it upon myself to offer an accurate visual voice for a group that normally doesn’t place emphasis on capturing the everyday details. All the subjects are from my community, and when I started this project in the fall of 2011, my goal was to respectfully document them. In light of the media’s often-fictionalized portrayal of the culture in “reality” shows like Breaking Amish, it was unnerving to think how easily the facts can get lost in (mis)translation. I wanted to celebrate the Amish for what they truly are: simple, beautiful, different—yet strangely familiar.


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