I picked this image because it’s one of only a few where I got to know the people in the photograph. I usually take a fly-on-the-wall approach, observing groups at a distance. I’m interested in exploring how people kick back, and most of my projects are connected by leisure and contemporary culture. I did a series called Bachelorette, documenting the cultural ritual of bachelorette parties, as a night of release for women. Another looked at the nightlife in Manhattan’s high-gloss Meatpacking district – a microcosm of sexual politics. But I didn’t interact with the people in those pictures or get their names.
Photographing the Amish vacationing started as an assignment for the New Yorker. They sent me to Florida, where the Amish and Mennonites have been spending their holidays since the 1920s, in a square mile of Sarasota called Pinecraft. I went back four more times, just for myself, renting an apartment in the neighbourhood.
Popular culture associates the Amish and Mennonites with a romanticised older way of life. I didn’t know much about the Amish, so when I saw them on vacation with a cellphone, it was shocking at first, and seeing an Amish person on a hoverboard felt like science fiction. Now I’m completely used to it. You can’t group everybody together – you have to talk to an individual to see what their specific kind of community allows.
Mostly, people were friendly and curious. Pinecraft is a fascinating and very social place. There’s a park where everybody plays volleyball or shuffleboard, and people just hang out on the street. Visiting Pinecraft is often the only time Amish and Mennonite communities get to mix. A lot of people told me that they’re not just here for vacation, but to meet other people. There are gospel concerts in the evenings, and buses come in every day bringing more visitors. The whole town spills out to see who’s arriving.
I stuck out like a sore thumb – I couldn’t take pictures of people unaware. So I started off by talking to them, asking questions, and making sure that the whole town knew I was there. It’s a small community, everybody talks to each other. After a while, they’d see me and say, “the girl from New York is back”. And then, by their looks and smiles, I knew when I could take pictures without people even paying attention to me. It was exhilarating to push myself out of my comfort zone around talking to people. But even so, it took me a while to get up enough courage to try to photograph anyone at the beach.
The beach is about 20 minutes away from Pinecraft itself, and you have to take a bus there. You’re no longer in the community, and you have to go up and down and look for Amish and Mennonites and approach them, which feels invasive. It’s only the very strict-order Amish who don’t change into a bathing suit, so it’s hard to spot any of the others, and the very strict Amish people are usually not in love with pictures to begin with.
A couple of them said no to my photographing them, but this group of girls agreed and asked if I would sit with them. There was a group of Amish boys in their trunks (you can see them in the picture) nearby and they were exchanging glances. Pinecraft is known as a good place to meet potential husbands or wives. I sat and chatted with the girls for some time and they asked me about life and photography and dating. Then the boys went down to the water and the girls followed them and signalled to me to come and take the picture.
The fourth and last time I went to Pinecraft, shortly before the pandemic, I brought little books I’d made of some of the images that I’d taken. I wanted to give something back to the community, as a keepsake, so they could see themselves, but also to show people what I’d been doing on my visits. A lot of people told me that this was the only memory of their vacation that they have, because they don’t take pictures themselves. It’s such a small community that almost everybody could at least see their friend or their cousin in the book. There were 40 copies and I gave every last one of them away.
Since the pandemic I’ve had to rethink how I work, because I can’t photograph subcultures or groups of people hanging out any more, which is what I love doing. I recently shot a cover image for Time magazine of two Pfizer scientists in their lab in Germany, from my home. Using an app on an iPhone, I took the images through my laptop. It’s almost like directing a film, using a third-party camera, but I’m controlling everything from the lighting to the positioning. Right now I’m experimenting with remote street photography. It’s too soon to say any more about it but I’m extremely excited.
Dina Litovsky’s CV
Born: Donetsk, Ukraine, 1979.
Trained: NYU, Psych BA / NYC School of Visual Arts, MFA in photography.
Influences: German expressionists, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, David Lynch, David Bowie.
High point: ‘Winning the Nannen prize, Germany’s foremost photo award, for Where the Amish Vacation during the pandemic last year.’
Low point: ‘Losing my camera to a spray of cheap champagne and Budweiser when shooting the World Series trophy celebration for the New York Times.’
Top tip: ‘Steal from everywhere and everyone and make it your own.’