This edit of my work on the Texas raid on the YFZ Ranch that won 1st place from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Utah Headliners. I could only submit twelve photographs in which to tell the story.
We wait at the locked gate of the YFZ ranch. It’s over 100 degrees out, coupled with that West Texas wind that never seems to stop blowing. Two hours later we are admitted. We drive down the long road to what I’ve heard called the guard tower (by outsiders) or the gatehouse (by insiders). Today it has a new sign: “Information Center.”
We are told about a reunion that’s about to take place. A van full of boys is here and they are going to see Grandma Gloria for the first time since they were removed in the raid two months ago. We had met and photographed Grandma Gloria a week before.
We meet the van at an industrial part of the ranch. I grab my cameras and walk up by the driver’s side with an FLDS man who is escorting us. Brooke continues on around the van to see the reunion but I’m stopped. Our escort says no pictures. I offer to photograph the boys from behind so their identities are protected.
No dice. No pictures.
I look through the tinted glass window and see Grandma Gloria hugging the boys on the other side of the van. Now I’m missing this great moment. I’m at my boiling point now. We wait two hours to get onto the ranch only to get shut out. Frustrated, I turn around and walk back to the car, putting my cameras on the back seat. I get in, lean the seat back and let out a huge exhale of tension. Here I am looking at a touching, authentic scene that humanizes their community and illustrates the reunion of families and they don’t want it shown.
After the reunion is over, we talk with our escort about the no pictures thing. He gives his reasons, which amount to the FLDS not wanting to antagonize CPS. We explain that photographs of these boys would violate nothing in the judge’s order sending the children home. We even give him a copy of the order, which he says he hasn’t seen. He drives off and we sit in the car staring at a junk pile for a half-hour.
I’m very frustrated at this point, after the two-hour wait and then no pictures. The moment was right there, five feet away, and my cameras had to stay at my side. Am I naive to hope for more openness from this secretive community? I’m fully aware that their history has given them countless reasons to avoid publicity, but moments like the reunion I just witnessed seem completely harmless.
Looking at the large pile of scrap metal junk, I start to wonder what is the point of being here? What are we going to get? Is it worth sticking around? But of course getting on the ranch is no small thing, so we wait.
Our escort comes back and says that a family is going to go out to the gate and do a press conference for the assembled media. We can either leave the ranch and do that or we can wait for them to finish and they’ll come back in and do something separate with us. After spending the past two weeks doing press conferences, we opt for talking to them alone.
Twenty minutes later we meet Edson Jessop and his wife Zavenda with their three sons and one daughter. A photographer and reporter from the Deseret News are now present. We sit in the shade in front of the schoolhouse. Very quickly, the oldest boy covers his face with his hands. And pretty soon the younger boys notice and follow their brother’s lead. The oldest says something like, “Stop taking pictures. We don’t like you taking our pictures.”
“If I was you,” I said, “I’d feel the same way.”
A statement of empathy like that usually works to calm children down, but this boy had a great response.
“Then why are you doing it?” he asked.
I was surprised and it took me a moment to figure out my response. I said, “I guess I’m doing it because I know who I am, and if you knew me you’d know I was a nice guy. Then you wouldn’t be half as mad as you are about me taking pictures.”
The boys kept their heads down. And you know, it’s not like I wanted them to look up or anything. How they were reacting showed how much they had been through after being taken from their parents two months ago (and the all-night drive home from a faraway shelter).
At one point one of the boys said he wanted to throw rocks at our cameras. Their parents apologized for their behavior but we all insisted that it was completely normal considering the circumstances. After I had a few photos of the boys, I started to focus on the daughter, who had no problems with the camera being there. She just wanted her parents’ attention. An interview situation like this is usually poor for candid moments, but they can still be found.
After a while the three boys walked off and climbed back into the family’s van. I thought I should go talk to them. The Deseret News photographer beat me to it. I don’t know what he said, but when he was done I left my cameras on the grass and went over to the van. The boys wouldn’t look at me as I thanked them for coming out and talking to us. They asked why I wanted photos of them. I said something like, “Well, because we want to show people that you are home with your family now. There are people who want to take you away from your family and…”
“People DID take us away from our family,” the oldest boy interrupted.
Again I thought, this boy is quick and smart. I said, “You know boys, you are going to remember today, the day you came home, for the rest of your lives. I am going to send each of you a photograph from today and I hope you keep it to help you remember the day you came home to your parents.”
They still weren’t looking at me, but I continued. “Now you don’t have to do this, but if you want to come out and take one picture where you are all smiling with your family, you can. I’m going to go back over there and let you decide. But you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. Thanks for letting me take your picture.”
I walked back to Edson and Zavenda, who were talking to the writers and playing with their young daughter. We sat for a while and then it was time to go.
As we got up to leave, the three boys walked over from the van and stood by their parents. They wanted the family picture.
Yesterday I spent time with Edson Jessop and his newly reunited family. I’ll write more when I get a minute. Just wanted to have something less “emo” at the top of the page here.