Asha Huntsman

The assignment read: Media availability for Huntsman family with new adopted daughter, Asha. Governor’s Mansion, Salt Lake City. I figured that “media availability” did not mean I would be having some exclusive time with the Huntsman family as they brought their newly adopted daughter home to Utah and introduced her to her new brothers and sisters. “Media availability” could only mean that every TV station and newspaper in town would be there. And I was right.

The Huntsman family came in and sat down, and began to talk about their experience bring Asha home. The newborn Asha had been abandoned on the side of the road in Gujarat only hours after her birth. She was taken to an orphanage and from that horrific start has ended up adopted into a clearly loving family. It’s quite a dramatic story. Now the task was to get dramatic photographs from a photo op, and to make sure I was getting different (and hopefully better) photographs than the photographer from the other newspaper in town.

The key was to sit back and watch for intimate moments between Asha and her new family. While the governor talked and the TV cameras filmed the static scene of the family on the couch, I stayed focused tight on Asha and her sisters, who would periodically reach in to feel her hair, hold her hand, or tickle her feet. While the event was basically no more than a press conference, these were real moments between sisters who had met within the previous two hours.

The photos kept coming and coming until the governor’s PR guy said, “We have time for one more question.” Then it was over. As I walked to my car, I pictured the many moments the Huntsman family will share through the holidays with their new baby girl. I hope they have a camera nearby.

This post also appeared on my work blog, on the Tribune’s website.

Back in Short Creek

Believe it or not, the sign pictured above was found in a court of law in the United States of America. The Justice Court in Hildale, Utah, whose citizenry is predominantly made up of the polygamous followers of Warren Jeffs. I just returned from Hildale and Colorado City, where I was working on a story on that fundamentalist community.

The trip was frustrating. Working in a closed community like the FLDS towns of Hildale and Colorado City can wear a journalist down in no time. No one will talk to you and phone calls are never returned. The FLDS live under a curtain of secrecy from outsiders. They are trying to keep themselves “pure,” and feel that contact with outsiders can only lead a lessening of the “holy spirit.”

The Colorado City Hall is a great example of how they keep things sealed off. Looking out onto the small parking lot is a set of glass doors that work like a two-way mirror. They can see out but you can’t see in. Once you’re through the first doors, there’s another set of doors with the same glass. And this is a government building, for the people. To be fair, we’ve never had a problem getting in there, but someone else told us how he often found the inner doors locked and an “office closed” sign that he figured had been hastily taped to the door upon his approach.

Our lack of FLDS contacts did little to frustrate Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle. I watched him leave business cards with several people all over town. While we tried to track down members of the City Council, I watched him walk into businesses and get the blank stare when we asked for a certain individual. We never found the people we were looking for and to my knowledge, no one ever called us back. The Chief of Colorado City’s Town Marshal Fred Barlow explained his position on talking to the media in an October, 2005 letter to his prophet, Warren Jeffs, this way:

“The community has been getting harassed by many news reporters. They are asking us why no one will talk to them. As law enforcement we get many calls and I have explained to them that the media have never told the truth about this people and that the people are not trying to justify themselves to the world.”

Fair enough if the FLDS don’t feel the need to justify their beliefs to the world. The world will make its case for or against the FLDS with or without their participation.

The documentary photographer in me sees the FLDS community as a gold mine of imagery. The pioneer clothes, the children, the large scale of their architecture, the religious elements of their beliefs, their sense of community (which I’m only guessing is there because it’s all so hidden away). But without access and their trust, getting great photographs is challenging. Try getting a good photo while your subject is running away from you. It’s a very ineffective approach.

Driving around in the beautiful late-afternoon sunlight, I spotted these children playing on a staircase. I shot a couple of frames from the car. As they spotted me they all stopped playing and one of the older girls (she’s not in the photo) ran into the house. After only a few shots, I moved on, hoping that I hadn’t completely ruined their day.

I guess we were all unsatisfied with the situation. The photographer (me) knows that there was a great photo to be had here and he didn’t get it. The kids know they had their afternoon playtime interrupted by yet another news photographer poking around in their town and they ended up having to go inside for the rest of the day to avoid him. The photographer feels like he stole a kid’s sucker.

It’s a shame that these people have closed themselves off from the world, that they feel compelled to keep their mouths shut.

This post also appeared on my work blog, on the Tribune’s website.

Small Business

At some point in the past two years, I went out and photographed a new local business. Basically a two-man operation. A man and his girlfriend ran everything. We spent about an hour there, while the man enthusiastically answered every question and carried on a great conversation. I left thinking, what a great product; I can’t wait to support these people through buying their wares and spreading the word to my friends. That night I went out and bought some of their product. I love small businesses and mom and pop shops.

A day later, my editor asked me to go back to get one more photo. I called the guy and he says, sure, come over at 2 p.m.

I walk in the door, and there’s like this little reception area. It’s empty and the door clanked shut behind me. No one was up front, but I could hear the guy and his girlfriend in the office down the hallway and around the corner. He was berating her, yelling and screaming at her with phrases like, “What the hell were you thinking?!” and “You and your damned sixth-grade accounting skills!”

Uh oh.

I wanted nothing more than to get out of the building and away from this very uncomfortable situation. I reached for the door, but it was jammed shut, and to get it open would make a lot of noise. I was stuck. The yelling went on for what seemed like minutes as I stood there completely unnerved. Then the guy walks out of the office to the front, all smiles.

He takes me into the work area of the business and is as helpful as can be, laughing and telling jokes. As if he hadn’t just been belittling his girlfriend. Out of the corner of my eye I looked into the office and the woman is just sitting there, stunned, staring at a computer.

I never bought the product again.

This post also appeared on my work blog, on the Tribune’s website.

National Finals Rodeo

I just spent three days covering the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. I’ve seen women with big hair, cowboys thrown from wild horses and clowns attacked by bulls. What’s not to love?

Whatever you think of rodeo, the cowboys at the NFR are the finest athletes in their sport, world-wide. And you could easily spot them at the casino by looking for the men (and women) who were limping. After a week of harsh competition they are all pretty beaten up.

The assignment was fairly challenging. Since I’m only covering the six Utah cowboys who made it to the Nationals, I’ve only got six chances to nail a good shot. Any other rodeo you’d shoot every single athlete and have plenty of good shots sprinkled through everyone. Not this time. To make it worse, there weren’t enough photo positions, and they were all in bad spots. Try shooting around three guys wearing cowboy hats:

Rodeo is full of action and you can fill up your memory cards awfully fast. Former Tribune intern Isaac Brekken, covering the NFR for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, told me he was shooting five gigabytes of photos every night.

Since I was on such a tight deadline (the time difference between Vegas and Salt Lake City puts me behind a full hour), there was no way way I could wade through all of those images to find my six Utah cowboys. So I shot the Utah cowboys on one memory card, and switched to another card for everyone else. When I started to edit each night, I could dump the Utah card first and get right to work.

This post also appeared on my work blog, on the Tribune’s website.


Okay, finally an update to the mouthpiece post from last May. In the age-old tradition of photo department pranks, I left a used mouthpiece in Tribune photographer Steve Griffin’s desk drawer. If the mouthpiece was returned, I haven’t found it yet. So I was on a Southwest flight a month ago and grabbed a Honey Maid soft baked snack bar and left it for Steve, still in the wrapper. Pretty mild prank, but I needed to know if the fish were still biting. They are. A few days later I found the bar in my desk drawer. Not only returned, but opened and smashed into my drawer. Now it’s no longer soft.

This post also appeard on my work blog, on the Tribune’s website.

The Next Jeffs Hearing

On Thanksgiving, surrounded by the extended family around the dinner table, someone asked me, “So what’s going to happen to Warren Jeffs?”

Halfway through my informed though admittedly long answer I realized that no one was listening. They weren’t interested in the nuanced response I had formed after hours and hours of research over the past sixteen months. They simply wanted me to say something like, “He’s going to rot in jail.” Because that’s what everyone always tells me: “I hope he rots in jail!”

To me, the entire Warren Jeffs/FLDS/Polygamy/Fundamentalist Mormon issue is a lot like the war in Iraq. There’s no simple answer. And anyone offering up a simple solution is uninformed.

To be perfectly honest, I haven’t formed an opinion on Warren Jeffs’ guilt or innocence on the accessory to rape charges he’s facing. I’m just a spectator in all of this. And it will be decided in that St. George courtroom without my input. But after sitting through the trials of polygamists in Kingman and St. George I’ve come to think that no matter the merits of the case for or against, no judge or jury wants to go home at the end of the day and have to tell their friends that they were the ones who let “the polygamist” go free.

This post also appeared on my work blog, on the Tribune’s website.

BYU vs. Utah – Irrelevance

I’ve been meaning to write about this year’s BYU-Utah football game. I’ve photographed a lot of these games and this was, hands down, the most dramatic finish yet.

But let’s back up. In any normal game, scoring a touchdown for the lead (with what, a minute or so left in the game?) means you’ve come from behind to win. Game over.

Utah did just that, as Utah’s Brent Casteel ran for a touchdown. Even better, he ran right at me and I got the whole sequence (which is posted above). In my mind, I knew that one of these shots could run large as the key play of the game, the go-ahead score.

His teammates piled onto him in celebration, and again I had a great spot for that photo.

Then, the unbelievable happened. as Casteel run back to the sideline, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham hoisted him into the air and let out a celebratory yell. Whittingham rarely lets loose like this, which made the photo that much more cool. Even better, most of the photographers were on the other side of the field and probably didn’t even notice this moment.

But unfortunately for Whittingham and the Utes, BYU then ran down the field and scored to win as time ran out. As that touchdown knocked the Utes out of a win, it also knocked these photographs into irrelevance.

This post also appeard on my work blog, on the Tribune’s website.

Don’t Do It

I had the privilege of photographing a Ballet West dress rehearsal at the Capitol Theatre last week. The dancers were amazing and there were only about 10 people in the audience. The PR contact told me to sit wherever I wanted: “front row, balcony, the place is yours.” It was one of those great moments that I get with this job. But all I could think of is how jealous my wife would be when she found out I got to see a Ballet West production from the front row, so close you can hear the dancers’ feet pounding the stage. The next day I was photographing World Cup Luge, and in the press room among the other free snacks there was a bowl filled with Lindt Lindor Chocolate Truffles. Forget the ballet, she was more jealous when I told her about the chocolates.

With all of the fun things we get to do on the job, photographers can be quite boring when we’re off duty. After spending our work shift in the front row of the ballet or on the sidelines of the big football game, the last thing we want to do is actually go out and enjoy culture on our off time. (Not that football is culture.) In fact, I would warn everyone out there: never get involved romantically with a photographer. It’s a horrible idea.

My wife has had to deal with this for many years. I remember that it snowed the night of our first date and I actually took a few weather shots for the newspaper that night. On our first date! Can you imagine?

Another reason to stay away from photographers (and there are simply far too many for me to write about in one post) is that photography consumes us. While we love our partners, we are also in love with photography and spend far too much time thinking about it, reading about it, and making love to it with our eyes. And our meager incomes often go into buying yet more expensive equipment to feed our habits.

I can’t stress it enough: don’t get involved with a photographer. The only thing worse is when two photographers have a relationship. I just can’t imagine how bad that must be. It’s one thing when I want to spend money on gear, but what if my wife had a 24mm tilt-shift lens on her Christmas list in addition to mine? Oh, the horror!

This post also appeared on my work blog, on the Tribune’s website.

Phony Campaigning

I had an interesting experience about a month ago, before the election. My assignment was to photograph a candidate for one of Utah’s congressional seats campaigning door to door. He was supposed to be out in a suburban neighborhood knocking on doors to explain his views and ask people for their support on election day.

There was a little mix-up on the time and location, mainly the location, so by the time I found the candidate he was inside the last house of a cul-de-sac after having visited the other homes.

Before I could go in, one of his staffers met me on the sidewalk and had me wait for the candidate to come out. And then a photographer for the other newspaper in town came out. That’s why they were holding me back, they wanted her to get her photographs. No problem. I started talking to her and found out she had just photographed the candidate visiting each home in this cul-de-sac. She went on her way.

Now the campaign staffer started explaining to me what was going to happen. He said the candidate would like to re-visit the homes in the cul-de-sac so I could photograph him interacting with these people.

Can you hear the red flags snapping up to attention? We were here to photograph some real campaigning, and this staffer wants me to photograph some fake situations, set up and staged for the camera, with families they have handpicked for the situation. I stopped him and said that we were expecting to photograph the candidate actually campaigning, and that I couldn’t photograph a staged situation like this. It had to be real.

To my surprise, he didn’t get it. In my mind, his suggestion of having the candidate fake his way through a series of visits with selected families was a clear violation of standard journalistic ethics. There was just no way I could photograph this.

It took a good five minutes for me to explain to the staffer that his proposal wouldn’t work for me. I don’t know if he ever fully grasped what I was saying, or why I couldn’t shoot his plan, but the candidate had no problem knocking on some unfamiliar doors and meeting some voters. He was actually very friendly and accommodating, and to be clear, he never suggested anything untoward. That’s what we did and those are the photos you saw in our paper. A true situation.

This post also appeard on my work blog, on the Tribune’s website.

Ted Wassmer

I read in the paper this morning that Utah artist Ted Wassmer died Sunday at the age of 96. Brings back a lot of memories and warm feelings for Ted. When I first started at the Tribune back in 1995, one of my first assignments was to photograph this amazing artist. I walked into a downtown art gallery (don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore) and met an 86-year-old man wearing an obvious silver toupee, a white suit coat and shorts. Ted.

He was great to photograph, hamming it up and especially proud of his legs and how good they looked. Even at his age, he had the energy and enthusiasm of a 20-year-old.

After the photos ran, Ted started calling. He wanted to get some prints of the photos. I offered to put them in the mail, but he insisted that I come over to his condo. He said he had something important to do. How could you turn down Ted? Of course I went over.

I took four prints, my favorites from the take. Ted ushered me in. When he noticed I didn’t have a camera, he thrust an old rangefinder into my hands, walked ten feet across the room, and stripped down to a Speedo and started flexing. I was stunned.

“I need you to take a photograph of me so I can show it to all my old buddies at our reunion,” he said. It was some kind of military reunion, Army or Navy, I can’t remember. “Those guys won’t believe how good I look!”

I remember wanting to kick myself for leaving my camera in the car. To this day, I wish I had that photo of Ted in his Speedo demonstrating how good he looked.

Ever the saint, Wassmer insisted that I take two of his paintings with me. He gave me a watercolor portrait and a painting of aspen trees that he had accidentally sliced. Both paintings have hung proudly in my home ever since.

Thank you, Ted. You will be missed.

This post also appeard on my work blog, on the Tribune’s website.

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