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.
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.