In film and on television, journalists are always portrayed as a wild pack of idiots chasing down and surrounding somebody, shouting inane questions and shoving cameras into faces. In the reality of newspaper journalism these situations are the exception. And in the Salt Lake City market, and my career, they are the very rare exception; hardly ever happens.
As still photographers, I think we all hate these situations. Most of the time we work alone on stories where we are welcomed in and we have time to look, see, and think. We are storytellers and most of the time our subjects are willing participants. But there are times when the news is about people who aren’t interested in having their picture taken. Politicians in the midst of scandal, people who’ve been arrested, my mom; they just don’t want to be photographed, let alone answer any probing questions. We go into these situations confident that the news value of the story is sufficient to justify a little discomfort.
Last week, reporter Brooke Adams and I were in Kingman, Ariz., covering the trial of polygamist Kelly Fischer. The 39-year-old Fischer was charged with sexual conduct with a minor (his 16-year-old stepdaughter) and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. After three days in court he was found guilty of both charges. This is the tale of photographing the elusive, camera-shy Fischer.
The judge refused to allow cameras in the courtroom, and the small lobby of the Mohave County Superior Court was also off-limits. So was the restroom and the hallway near the vending machine. Basically, the only time to get a photo of Fischer would be when he came and went from the court. In our favor, there was only one way in — the front door.
The first day we showed up 90 minutes early, hoping to catch him as he came in. I had a general description of him, but no real idea of what he looked like. There was a TV crew there, a cameraman and reporter, also waiting for Fischer to show up. TV cameramen wear shorts, T-shirts, and carry around very heavy, very expensive video cameras. TV reporters wear slacks, dress shirts, and ties, and the nice ones sometimes carry the tripod.
The TV cameraman said, “This guy better show quick; I gotta piss.”
We waited around for an hour and a half, lifting our cameras anytime we saw someone approaching the court who fit the profile for an FLDS man on trial. But everyone who walked up had some sort of clue that they weren’t FLDS: guy with a beard, guy with short sleeves, guy with an earring, guy with a goatee, guy with a crazy-brilliant red tie, guy smoking a cigarette.
Finally I got a text message from Brooke, Fischer was already inside. He must have shown up very early.
The TV reporter and I went inside to sit in on the trial. The TV cameraman said, “Just call me when they’re coming out. I’ll be in the truck. Don’t worry, I got movies.”
Jury selection takes forever. The 80-plus potential jurors who showed up are told it will be five minutes and they end up standing around until lunchtime. Meanwhile, another TV cameraman shows up and sets up camp on the sidewalk. He’s come prepared, with a chair, umbrella and a gallon of water. He puts his camera on a tripod pointing at the front door and sits comfortably in his chair, watching the door.
Waiting around with the jurors are some junior attorneys who would be observing the case. They are talking about pop culture: “In the new Superman movie, they ran into a problem with the… it was a family movie so they had to digitalize out the bulge.”
They are talking about Kingman, Arizona, with a TV reporter:
“Is there a good place here to eat dinner?” asks the reporter, “in case we have to stay in this (dump)?”
“Welcome to our world,” one of the attorneys says.
Finally the judge calls for an hour lunch break. I join the two other TV cameramen outside. We wait and wait. Finally, halfway through the lunch break Fischer’s attorney comes out. The cameras start filming him and ask him some questions. He goes into this long, rambling answer, like he’s trying to take up a lot of time. I click a few quick frames off and head back toward the door, leaving the TV guys rolling on him. While the TV cameras are distracted with the attorney, Fischer bursts out the front door moving quickly across the building away from the cameras.
I’m in a good position and run past him, saying, “Sorry guy,” and clicking off shots. Fischer holds up his day planner in front of his face, trying to block my view. I get my shots and stop, watching him go quickly to his car, driving off with a book in front of his face.
Reviewing my photos, the pressure was off for the day. I had my safety shot. Fischer returned and held some papers in front of his face as he walked in. We didn’t know it then, but he would never leave the courthouse for lunch again. He would stay inside where we couldn’t photograph.
Standing around, the first TV cameraman tells me a story about a reporter he worked with. The guy was new, they were covering a trial, and the reporter shows up dressed sharp and carrying a briefcase. The cameraman thinks to himself, ‘This guy’s really on the ball.’ The reporter sits down, opens the briefcase, and pulls out a sandwich, a moon pie, and a Coke. The cameraman asks, ‘You got a notebook in there?’ The reporter says ‘No.’
The second TV cameraman has been covering polygamy for 11 years. He’s got a decade on me. He’s full of stories and tells a great one about chasing down polygamist fugitive Orson Black through the back alleys of a Mexican town, climbing walls and running through chicken coops.
I sit in to watch the jury process, which goes on all afternoon. They’re trying to find nine jurors who haven’t heard about Warren Jeffs, Colorado City, and the FLDS polygamists. It’s a hard task here in Mohave County. We can’t talk to the prospective jurors, but some of them talk to each other. One woman who has lived in Kingman for decade says she’s never heard of Warren Jeffs or the polygamists until today. Another juror looks at her and says sharply, “What cave do you live in?”
At the end of the day, Fischer again comes out the front door covering his face. In his green suit and tie, he sprints to his car and drives off with a sheaf of paper covering his face.
Again, Fischer shows up very early to the court. Since today’s edition of the Tribune had my photo from yesterday, I wasn’t as concerned about photographing him today. Until the case was decided, I didn’t need to put all my resources into catching him.
The better photos today are of witnesses Richard Holm and Isaac Wyler, two men who were kicked out of the FLDS community but remain in Colorado City. They are the story of the day, and I’ve met and photographed both men previously. So there’s no sprinting today.
The case is a fascinating bit of history. It’s fascinating to watch Fischer as Isaac Wyler testify about the FLDS community. Both men are a year apart in age and have known each other all their lives. Now they sit on either side of the fence.
There’s a break in the trial. I’ve brought in a book (I’ll end up reading two entire books during the various breaks in the trial) and while I’m reading my ears prick up when I hear Fischer on his cell phone say, “I’m going out the back door today to avoid the cameras.” Then he notices me sitting there (I’m reading, or at least now I’m only pretending to) and he exits the courtroom quickly to finish the conversation.
After the trial is over for the day, the two TV cameramen are waiting out front. I wait inside where I can observe Fischer. He’s talking to his attorney down the hall. Again, I don’t need his photo today, but I’m very curious about what he’s up to. Finally I hear his attorney say, “Okay, I’ll go do my thing,” and head for the TV cameras to make his daily statement. Fischer heads down another hallway further into the building.
I go outside to the corner and keep looking behind the courthouse. There is one door there that he could come out of. I watch it for a while but he doesn’t show. Did he beat me out the back door? We drive around for a while looking for his car, comparing all the white cars nearby to a photo I have of Fischer’s car. It’s nowhere. We leave. He beat us.
This is probably the last day of the trial. There will be no witnesses today, so a photo of Fischer, the accused, is going to be very important. Of secondary importance will be photos of the prosecuting attorney, Matt Smith, and the defense attorney, Bruce Griffen. But I’ve got to catch Fischer, and he outsmarted me yesterday.
We show up a little early. The TV stakeout is still on, but this morning’s tactics have changed. There’s a TV reporter watching the back of the courthouse.
They didn’t get him yesterday, either. One of the TV cameramen set his camera on a tripod pointed at the front door and let the tape roll until it ran out. They never saw him.
They tell me he hasn’t shown up yet. So we wait. It starts to rain and we take shelter, stooping under some bushes. The clock ticks.
“He’s only got ten minutes left.”
“He’s only got six minutes now.”
He’s been early every day. What gives?
“He’s got to be in there,” I say.
At 9:30, when the trial is set to resume, I say, “I’m going in. He must be in there.” I pick up my bag and take about five steps toward the door when I hear one of the TV guys, “Here he comes!”
Kelly Fischer is across the street with his attorney. The rain stops and he walks slowly and deliberately across the street and into the courthouse. He’s calm, composed, not covering his face. We all get shots.
Inside the courtroom, some sort of sentencing just took place. I’m holding the door open as people file out. A 20-something male covered with tattoos was just sentenced to serve time, and his family and girlfriend are walking out, eyes red, crying and bawling. It’s a sad scene. The bailiff is leading the guy away and starts to search him. The criminal turns to me and mouths the words “I love you.”
I’m like, what? Then I realize his crying girlfriend is standing directly behind me.
During the lunch break, Fischer again stays inside where we can’t photograph. After lunch the jury begins to deliberate. They return, finding him guilty of both counts. He is ordered released and to return for sentencing August 4th.
I bolt outside. This is it.
Fischer comes out a few minutes later with his attorney and they walk at a normal pace to the attorney’s car. There are two TV cameras, me, and one other still photographer (a guy who runs a blog about Nevada Polygamy). We’re all swarming around, trying to stay ahead of Fischer.
“You guys are like flies,” Fischer says.
“Sorry it’s not under better circumstances,” I say.
“Don’t lie. You love it.”