The nightly women’s volleyball game is the community’s main spectacle.
There’s a tendency in photojournalism, documentary and even editorial photography to seek out the sensational, particularly to document the strife that is part of human history.
However, even in these turbulent times, most people spend their time performing commonplace tasks and engaging in routine activities. For example, their lives—our lives—are focused on things like their children’s grades, paying bills or what to make for dinner.
The renowned Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt once told me years ago, “I’d like to see photographers shoot duller things and make them interesting. I don’t mean like wilting lilies or flower arrangements, but human stuff. Stuff that doesn’t jump out at you. Life is not only misery and hysteria, it’s also everything in between.”
The projects of Ukraine-born, New York-based editorial photographer Dina Litovsky epitomize the “everything in between” approach.
She finds daily life a bottomless treasure trove of photographic opportunities. It’s why magazine photo editors seek Litovsky out when looking for a photographer to fill their pages with penetrating images that depict the more subtle moments of the human condition.
Her award-winning series Where The Amish Vacation serves as a fascinating example.
Digital Photo Pro: How did the Amish on Vacation project come about?
Dina Litovsky: It started as an assignment for The New Yorker magazine. A former Amish woman was my guide. Everything that was in that feature was basically shot
over a weekend. I then turned it into a personal project and have been back three times.
Where was this project shot?
This is in Pinecraft, a little community in Sarasota, Florida. It’s been a winter vacation spot for the Anabaptists since the 1920s. It’s grown a lot since then.
Amish and Mennonites from around the U.S. have been coming back every season, which is from November to March. The community consists of very typical Florida houses that are either owned by the Amish or can be rented for the season. It is not gated, and anyone can go there. For my last two trips, I stayed in a small house in Pinecraft. I wanted to really integrate myself in the community.
Since some members of those communities don’t typically use mechanized forms of travel, how do they get there?
Everybody has different rules, including those within the Amish and Mennonite communities. Some will ride in planes, others won’t. Some will ride bikes, others won’t. To generalize, those who go to Pinecraft are, by default, a little more liberal than those who are not allowed to fly or ride at all. Mennonites, who have more relaxed rules, and some Amish groups fly there. The most common way to get to Pinecraft is by chartered buses from Ohio and Indiana, which take around 24 hours.
Why did you end up making it a personal project?
Sometimes you find the perfect project where you are having so much fun shooting.
On my very first trip, I felt euphoric while photographing, and I just knew it was going to be my next project. That feeling has not left me.
I’m not interested in the Amish as a religious group. For example, I would never think of going to Lancaster [Pennsylvania] to photograph their way of life. My work in general revolves around documenting leisure with a focus on modernity. Amish are a group that we associate with hard work. We don’t stop to think that they take vacations, but, of course, they do. I thought that was interesting.
There’s another point of interest for me: While the Amish are in Florida, they are coming into contact with the modern world.
The subjects in your series seem to be at ease with you photographing them.
Most Amish are OK with being photographed, as long as they are not being asked to pose. Every group has their rules.
The ones that can’t be photographed at all are more likely to be the ones that don’t come to Pinecraft. So, the place filters out the really strict ones by default. Also, everybody’s on vacation. People, no matter where they’re from or who they are, are in a much better mood on vacation.
Another important thing is that I am not going into people’s homes. I am not going to Lancaster. We are both on neutral territory. In Florida, I’m just as much a visitor as they are. I think all of that contributes to the fact that most people don’t mind the camera.
I’ve been back several times, so by now many people know me and are quite friendly. I am shooting in the streets in a respectful way, not asking anyone to pose for me. If I want to get closer, I ask for permission, which is almost always given.
There hasn’t been a single negative incident in the four times I’ve been there. If someone doesn’t want to be photographed, they would turn away or somehow indicate that, and I respect it. It’s sort of an intuitive dance.
What equipment are you working with? You’re filling the frame so well with your compositions.
For the first two times, I limited myself to a 35mm lens. Then, I started getting a little more relaxed and started shooting the beach scenes. So, I needed a bit of a zoom. But even with my 24-70mm zoom, I’m making sure it doesn’t go wider than 35mm or zooming in more than 50mm for this project.
I used the Nikon D4 for most of the project. However, I just got the Nikon Z 6 and used it to shoot the last time I was in Florida but only during the day. The moment it gets to dusk, I switch to the other camera. I don’t like going above ISO 800 with the Z 6. But it’s a beautiful camera during the day.
How did you initially get into photography and learn the tools and techniques of the trade?
I graduated from NYU in 2002 with a degree in psychology, and I finished pre-med. But I ended up not going to med school, which I initially had planned to do.
I got my first camera—a Nikon digital—when I was 22 and started shooting for myself. Then, I started shooting weddings. Eventually, I went to the School of Visual Arts and received my master’s in 2010. In terms of editorial assignments, I started around seven years ago and stopped shooting weddings. I’m doing some commercial work, too, as well, but 90 percent of my projects are editorial.
How often are the editorial projects your ideas versus those being assigned to you by magazines? The Dog Show or Debutante Ball, for instance.
Before it used to be half/half. For example, I pitched the Last Bell in Ukraine and Westminster Dog Show to National Geographic. The more work I get from magazines, the less inclined I am to find my own because I can only handle so much. When things get quieter, I start looking for homes for my own ideas.
It’s a balance, but I would say most of the time now, people approach me. If I have an idea for a project that I am excited about, I find a fitting publication and pitch it.
Many photojournalists and editorial photographers tend to focus on more “noisy” subjects, such as war and riots. It’s why “conflict photography” is a category in our profession. But you seem drawn to more subtle, quieter stories.
I don’t consider myself a photojournalist. I’m not really invested in documenting the facts of life. I’m choosing subjects that feel visceral to me, and in those, I’m more interested in the minute details—everyday life, leisure activities.
I also mostly go for subjects into which I can project my own opinion and emotion. I’m not an objective photographer. I only pick subjects where my opinion can come through.
With the Amish, for example, I have a specific point of view I’m trying to communicate. I am framing my images as tableaus. By that, I mean [my photographs are] carefully “arranged” figures in the street, interacting with each other, seemingly unaware of the photographer and the viewer.
I’m interested in communicating a feeling of whimsy and lightness versus recording what is happening or “this is how the Amish do stuff.”
But it’s still journalism in that you’re not creating the scene in front of your lens.
I’d say it’s documentary photography versus journalism.
For many of my series, I’m lighting it in a way where I’m inserting my opinion on the scene. I can distort the reality of the scene by darkening everything around the subject, using an off-camera, bare Nikon speedlight. I’m also not very objective in my shooting, and, in fact, I’m not interested in being objective.
So, the subject has to be of a nature where this approach fits. With the Amish, I am not using flash. The scene in front of me is rich and colorful enough not to require that extra layer.
You’re also working on a book version of your Amish series. What do you hope to convey through that?
When people see that I’m photographing Amish, I often hear, “You can’t take these photos, they can’t ride bicycles…”
There are a lot of absolutes. One of the things I’ve learned is that all these groups are very different. I recently posted an image on National Geographic’s Instagram site of an Amish woman riding a hoverboard. Many people commented that she couldn’t be Amish because of the hoverboard, that she must be a Mennonite.
This project has taught me that we actually know very little about the Amish and Mennonite rules. Unless you ask the person which community they belong to and what their specific rules are, you are simply generalizing and guessing. Some use cell phones as long as they are not smartphones; others frown on that. Hoverboards are allowed in some groups but not in others.
Those differences are very interesting to me.
Your series is able to convey a very different side of the Amish community, one that has mostly remained hidden until this project.
I don’t want to photograph the Amish sitting at a table and praying. That’s sort of what you would expect. I’m not going into people’s houses.
Pretty much everything for that series I’m shooting on the street. The Amish and the Mennonites there mix together, which doesn’t happen back home, where they mostly stay in their own communities. Also, it’s often looked down upon to date outside of their own group—for example, for an Amish to date a Mennonite.
Pinecraft may be the only place where, once a year, all the Anabaptists can mingle amongst each other. I asked many people why they love Pinecraft so much, and the most common answer was that it gives them a chance to meet one another. It is this mixing that fascinates me, in particular, therefore I am focusing on group interactions and portraits.
I heard that a lot of couples met in Pinecraft and ended up getting married, including between Mennonite and Amish. The rules are definitely a little bent there. It’s a place of endless fascination for me.
For more on Dina Litovsky’s work, go to dinalitovsky.com.