From her gorgeous website and impressive roster of luxury travel clients, you’d never guess Mary Blank grew up Amish in Pennsylvania. She’d never been on a plane until she was 24, let alone had a camera, electricity, or formal education beyond the eighth grade. Within a short period of time, not only has Mary learned photography…she truly excels at visual storytelling and creating a narrative through images.
Mary credits her work ethic to her Amish upbringing, which has catapulted her business in a few short years. We chat with Mary about finding photography, becoming a successful business owner, and her difficult decision to leave the Amish community.
How did you get into photography?
I was born and raised in the Amish community, so travel and photography were never a part of my lifestyle growing up. My Dad passed away when I was 10 years old, and after I left the community, five years ago, I realized I couldn’t remember what my dad looked like anymore. Memories started fading and it sent me through another grieving process. All I wanted was a photo of him. That’s when I started becoming very passionate about taking photos and capturing memories everywhere I went. Started my journey as a wedding photographer and in 2020 I transitioned into commercial photography.
Wow, what was your life like, how did you decide to leave the Amish and where did you go when you left?
I will be honest; my life was great! I never questioned anything about my lifestyle until I was 23 years old. It’s hard to say what exactly led me to make such a big decision as there were many little things along the way. As a woman, there was a lot of pressure to be married by the age of 21 and when that didn’t happen, I thought something was wrong with me and became very insecure and unhappy.
My faith is everything to me and so when I started having all these questions, it really took me for a spin. I questioned everything in my life but especially the control the Amish church had over my life. From the way I dressed to the way I lived my life, I was always being judged for being “too forward” and felt like I could never measure up to be that person everyone wanted me to be. That sent me on a journey of questioning everything I had been taught all my life and that’s when I discovered who God truly was. I also found a great group of people at a church I started attending in Millersville, PA. The pastor and his wife completely stepped out of their way to help me in my process of leaving the Amish community. I was 24 years old by this time.
After much soul-searching, I decided to go to California and be a part of a non-profit organization in San Francisco for six months. I will never forget the mixed emotions I felt the morning I left, which was also officially leaving the community. It was the feeling of heartbreak when saying goodbye to my mom and sister. It was the tension of knowing when I walked out that door, I am saying goodbye to everything I had known all my life. It was the feeling of grief, knowing that some friends and family would shun me for making this decision. It was the scared feeling of walking into the airport, never having flown before and, all of a sudden, being left on my own. Those six months were the most life-changing for me as I really had room to breathe, grow, and discover who I was as a person.
Do you still keep up with your Amish family or is that not possible?
Out of nine, a few of them, yes! I’m very close with my younger brother and sister. If it wasn’t for the two of them supporting me and having my back, I would’ve felt like I lost so much more because they truly mean the world to me. For the rest of my family, I choose to believe they will come around eventually.
I read on Wikipedia that the Amish don’t get formal education after 8th grade, is that true?
Yes, that is true! They believe one’s work ethic is more important. As a 14-year-old girl, right after I was done with school, I learned how to cook for the family, do gardening, sew my own clothes etc.
My education was one of my biggest struggles right after leaving, and something I had not thought through at all. I considered going back to school, but the whole process felt so overwhelming. After my photography started taking off, I invested a lot into books, podcasts, and online courses and that’s how I got to where I am today.
Hang on, tell me more about cooking and housework, without any of the modern conveniences?
Cooking normally means gathering vegetables from the garden (and mind you, it's always a huge garden ha!) then getting everything ready. A traditional dinner would be potatoes, noodles, vegetables, and meat. The meat was either beef, deer, or chicken --all homegrown. Most of my brothers went hunting so then we would store up large amounts of deer meat in the freezer. We also raised our own chickens.
Before we get to the photography, diving a bit more into the Amish culture, have you done Rumspringa, what is that like?
Rumspringa is not what everyone thinks it is. This is basically when one turns 16 and they can start going to a youth group every Sunday. There are over 100 different youth groups, varying from very strict to very liberal. The parents will often have a say in which one you decide to choose. Each youth group has around 60-100 people. This is also a time when you start dating and you continue going to a youth group until you get married.
Here is how a youth group works: It is held at someone's home. Everyone starts arriving around 4:00 and they start playing volleyball (this was always so much fun and very competitive) Dinner is around 5:30 and then there's more volleyball. We would often have 5-6 nets set up, and the teams that aren't playing just hang around and have fun. Around 7:30 everyone starts going inside and then is when the singing starts. By this time the house is filled with benches for everyone. We would sing for an hour and a half and then afterward there was snacks and hang out time. The ones who are dating will leave and have some time together alone. As for everyone who is single, they play more volleyball or sometimes board games. During the winter indoor/board games are played. We would start driving home (in horse and buggy) around 11:00 and most times did not come home until after 1 a.m.
How have you learned so much about photography, especially digital photography if you never had been on computers before?
I got my first phone at the age of 20. It was love at first sight (this precious phone had to be hidden of course)! I discovered technology and I get along very well and so learning how to use a phone, computers, cameras, etc. has never really been a big challenge for me.
You’re obviously a hard worker and a quick study, do you attribute that to your Amish upbringing?
Yes! Absolutely! I will always be so grateful for the things I was taught growing up. Having no TV or phones, our creativity was always pushed because we had to create our own entertainment. I realize now that has made it easier for me to tap into creativity at any given time.
When I get asked about the culture, I have met many people with a mindset that everything is so perfect and laid back. Let me just say, that couldn’t be further from the truth! While it may seem laid back, the pressure of working all the time is very high and is something they pride themselves in. The only day of rest is a Sunday.
I can honestly say there are so many beautiful things about the Amish culture! A childhood memory I hope I will never forget, was the Sunday evenings after a hot summer day. My two siblings and I would spend hours running around the yard catching fireflies. I remember shouting with glee as I saw my mom walking out the door with a bowl of fresh, hand-popped popcorn. My dad would be sitting in the yard, smiling at us, and then continue looking out across the fields. I can guarantee you, he was thinking about the work that needed to be done:)
You have built an impressive business with a specialty in hotel photography, what was your professional journey?
Thank you so much! Building my own business has been quite the journey, but I think any entrepreneur would say that. There’s so much trial and error, but I thrive on the excitement and tension of taking scary risks.
Soon after I left the Community, I realized I have absolutely nothing to show for my education, and finding a job would be hard. Luckily, I had friends who both opened their homes to me and also offered me a job in customer service. I started out doing wedding photography on the side and absolutely loved it!
In 2020, I took a look at my lifelong term and realized I did not want to spend my weekends working. That’s when I made the transition into hotel/travel photography. I have always been very passionate about travel! It didn't take long for me to realize I wanted to support and walk alongside brands that really focus on creating amazing experiences for their guests.
In terms of building my business, I have been able to draw on my experiences as a manager in an Amish food market/restaurant, which I started at the age of 19. The market/restaurant is in North Wildwood, NJ and I basically lived there during the summers. I learned a ton during this time, from the hiring process to running a business and even having to have difficult conversations with employees.
What a cool story, now that your expertise is hotel/travel photography tell us more about how you create a narrative through images.
As a start, it’s important for me to understand the brief from the hotel marketing team and know their goals and objectives. Next, we discuss the shot list, which is usually best done on-site so I can see how the images will turn out. Once I’m onsite it just evolves naturally.
However, I think it’s important for every photographer to create time in their schedule to grab their camera and just go shoot. This will help tremendously when your skills or creativity are put on the spot. There are days when things will go wrong on set, and it’s important to know how to handle it and go with the flow, especially when working with models.
How has your Amish upbringing informed your personal “lens”, aesthetically?
I think a lot of it is just having a deep appreciation for beauty in the world. At home, my favorite thing was to take a walk to our nearby pond after a day of work. I would sit there watching the sun go down while listening to the crickets sing. I had no phone or even a watch on me. Posting to Instagram wasn't an option. All I could do is be present. Looking back, I realize how much that has impacted me not only personally but also in my photography journey. It has pushed me to notice what is around me especially when I'm on set.
For our readers that work in hotels, specifically in sales and marketing, what are your top tips for running a successful photoshoot?
Make sure you have a shot list that makes sense to both you and the photographer based on your marketing goals.
Always allow extra time when having models in the photoshoot. There are many little things such as posing, making models feel at ease, re-applying makeup, etc. that will take up time. Your photographer should be able to help you out with a timeline if you’re unsure.
Lighting plays a HUGE part in how your photos will turn out. If you’re unsure about the time of day to schedule your shoot, ask your photographer to walk the property with you prior to that day. This way you can determine what time works best, based on your goals for the photoshoot and the outcome.