New Phones

We just updated our cellular plans at the paper and each photographer had the chance to pick out a new cel phone. There were a bunch of free models as well as some nicer phones if you wanted to pay a premium.

Watching our photographers choose phones was a lesson in personality.

The thoughtful perfectionists among us did a lot of research into the most reliable, best reviewed phones and picked the top-rated model.

The photographer who gets texts all day from his girlfriend looked into a model with fold-out keyboard.

I joined a small group who ordered the new chocolate phone (the LG VX8550).

All week I was asked why I chose that model. There is no real answer. There was no feature that sold me. In fact, I can’t even tell you what features this phone has. My decision was style over substance.

Simply put, it was the coolest phone available. And I don’t even care if it works or not.

Analyze that.

p.s. Apple’s iPhone wasn’t an option.

Suburban Polygamy – The Access Process

There was a lot of talking to do before I started photographing the family we covered in our story on suburban polygamy. We had to work out some access issues, especially regarding the family’s privacy. We agreed to not use their last name and that we wouldn’t reveal the city they live in. Then there were photo issues.

For example, who could I photograph? Two of the three wives agreed to be photographed, one did not. The husband was out of the question. It was essential to the family that his identity not be revealed. But he did agree to have unidentifiable parts of his body photographed. This little bit of access allowed me to incorporate the father of this family into the coverage, even if only as a symbol.

Before I started shooting, I needed to know how to handle photographing the children. The father gathered all of the children who were 12 or older. He explained what we were doing and let each of them decide whether or not they could be photographed. He went around the table, asking each one. I crossed my fingers, hoping for the best.

First teenager: “No.”

Okay, one down, I thought. Maybe the next one.

Next teenager: “No.”

OK, let’s hope this turns around.

Next teenager: “No.”

As the no’s continued, I realized I was watching dominoes fall. In the end, only one of the teenagers agreed to be photographed.

I assured the kids I would respect their decisions and keep their privacy, but from that point on the teenagers avoided me.

Grocery Shopping in Short Creek

One of the frustrations in covering polygamy has been access. We just never get enough of it. Keep in mind that polygamy is illegal. These people have a lot to lose if they’re exposed. So they’re not likely to risk their livelihood for me, a guy that they lump in with the rest of the bone-headed media.

In 1953, government agents raided Short Creek (now Hildale/Colorado City) and broke apart polygamist families, putting the men of the community in jail in attempt to put an end to the isolated polygamist community. The terror these families felt during this event fifty-four years ago still reverberates in many polygamists. Many still live in fear of another raid, and keep their family ties and beliefs secret from outsiders.

The last person they want around is a journalist. Much less a photographer.

On the flip-side, when I’m in these communities, I can’t help but notice all of the amazing photographs that are just outside my reach. This past week I was in the small grocery market in Colorado City, run by the FLDS. They don’t socialize with outsiders. They believe that in order to keep themselves at the highest spiritual level, they should have little or no contact with the outside world.

Outside the grocery is a young cowboy (boots, buckle, hat). He’s listening to an iPod. I wonder what he’s listening to? Home-recorded FLDS religious music? Sermons by Warren Jeffs?

Inside the grocery store are at least a dozen women in pioneer dresses with their hair pulled back in their distinctive braid and weave style. The photographer in me is leaping out of my skin, dying to photograph them, wanting to document this culture. But bringing a camera in here would have been like shouting “Fire!” in a theater.

Brooke and I buy some Gatorade, Pringles, and Chex Mix. That will have to pass for lunch on this hot July day. The cashier, a girl between 14 and 16 years old in a pioneer dress, smiles but doesn’t say a single word to us as she rings up our food. The bagger, another young girl, sends text messages on her cel phone and giggles in between bagging. Cel phones are very popular in Colorado City.

While we were in Colorado City someone told us a fun story about one of the old women of the FLDS community, who recently passed on. She used to run the cotton candy booth at community get-togethers. In order to entice buyers she would give a couple of boys a free cotton candy and send them out to walk through the crowd eating it. What a great tactic.

The Polygamy Team

There is so much I need to write about covering polygamy. So many people, stories, experiences, and challenges.

It’s been two years now since I started covering the polygamists of Utah and the West with Tribune staff writer Brooke Adams. It’s been a very rewarding partnership, like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my 19 year career.  We make a great team.

Aside from her reporting and writing skills, Brooke somehow keeps track of an unending cast of characters. (For example, we met a woman the other day who was related to her grandmother through three separate branches of the family tree.)

I bring the cameras and make observations, as well computer and tech skills. As a team, our standards are very high.

Brooke is the only full-time polygamy writer in, what, the world? She sets the pace and seems to never stop working. Her sources keep her cel phone ringing constantly. In the field, we start early and end late, working in remote environments where expense accounts go nowhere. And the day’s not over until I’ve finished a cheesecake or hot fudge sundae at the end of a late dinner.

I’ve learned so much about reporting in this time, sitting in on interview after interview. Some on the record, some off the record, some to never be mentioned. We’re covering people living an illegal lifestyle, and we also covering a closed, secretive community (the FLDS – Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). It’s been quite the adventure.

It would be wrong to not mention my predecessor on the polygamy beat photo-wise. I look at Leah Hogsten’s work, especially her 2001 essay on Tom Green’s family, as my goal for excellence.

Consider this the first of a few polygamy posts. I’ll start writing the next one immediately.

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