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.
How cool is this? I made City Weekly’s Best of Utah list. And just look at the name of the award:
BEST RECORDER OF A BACK STORY BEHIND A MEDIA CLUSTERF*CK
Thank you very much, City Weekly. My parents will be so proud!
For anyone who came here from the City Weekly mention (which is quite a chore considering the crazy URL we’ve got here- 166.70.what?), I’ve linked to some of the posts they praised in the text of the award:
When hundreds of journalists descended on West Texas for two months to cover the state raid on the FLDS compound in El Dorado, Salt Lake Tribune chief photographer Trent Nelson kept careful account of the details on his blog Fly on the Wall (http://tribblogs.com/fly/). Nelson puts some of his best photos on the blog, as well as ironic and sometimes deeply emotional posts related to the stories he documents. His posts on the FLDS story illustrated the drama, as well as frequent boredom, that comes with hunkering down in a small town to cover a big story.
Thanks again to City Weekly.
NOTE: I have spent years covering polygamy and events in the FLDS community, including the first trial of Warren Jeffs and the 2008 raid on the YFZ Ranch in Texas. You can find all of my posts on polygamy by clicking here: Category:Polygamy
There are two competing story lines to Betty Jessop, which I think are summed up in the two photos above.
1. The FLDS view (on the left) is a smiling and happy young FLDS woman who returned to her faith and family when she turned 18 and now lives a wonderful life surrounded by family and friends.
2. The worldly view (for lack of a better term) is a curiosity and sadness that this young girl had escaped a cult but chose to return to its secretive culture and give up her freedom.
Please use a permanent marker to circle your position on the computer screen. Especially if you are at work.
Hey, did I mention that I met Betty Jessop?
We were ushered into this dining room area in a home on the YFZ Ranch and met Betty. She was surrounded by (I’m guessing) her sisters and other family members. They were all a little nervous at all the attention, and there was much giggling. I don’t think too many strangers with cameras come around.
Betty laughed and was a little camera shy at first. It was the end of a long day and she hadn’t expected to have her photo taken tonight. She was hardly the first young woman to ask me to delete any “ugly” pictures. I thought she looked great. We sat down and she talked, and after thirty minutes or so it was over.
Last night I went to a local bookstore to hear Betty’s mother, Carolyn Jessop, talk about her bestselling book, Escape. As she read about Betty, Carolyn got emotional. At one point, reading about her leaving, she told of going back into the house to get her daughter and saying, “Betty, I will not leave you behind!”
During the Q&A Carolyn was asked how her kids are doing now. Speaking of Betty, she said that Betty had turned down a friend’s offer to pay for college. About Brooke’s article on the front page yesterday, FLDS Teen Disputes Mom’s Book, Carolyn said, “That’s been very painful.” Brooke’s story focused on a book that Betty has been writing about her experiences in and out of the FLDS community. Someone described it to me as “Escape From Escape.”
Carolyn said that Betty had lots of friends when she was attending public school after leaving the FLDS (in West Jordan, a suburb of Salt Lake City), and she worried that the book might destroy Betty’s relationships with those friends, further locking her into the FLDS society.
Someone asked if the FLDS members of Carolyn’s family had read the book. Carolyn said she didn’t know, that if any had they would never admit it as the book would be contraband. During our interview with Betty, she said she had read parts of her mother’s book, and expressed hurt by some of it.
Carolyn talked about how smart Betty was, and suggested that Betty would be saddened at the state of education among the FLDS. She said Betty had taken a child development class in high school, and would know sexual abuse when she saw it.
Someone said to Carolyn, “I have a hard time understanding what is pulling Betty back.” Carolyn said that Betty was a favorite of her father, that he named her his favorite name. She said Merril was very protective of Betty. If the girls got in trouble the punishment would be, “A slap to the sisters and a sucker for Betty.”
According to Carolyn, leaving the community was a big blow to Betty. In the FLDS community, she never got in trouble. She was the favored daughter of one of the most powerful men. Teachers bowed to Betty. She had the world by the tail. When she left and went to a public school, she felt alone. She missed her half brother. All the kids had a hard time without their siblings.
I think you are seeing some of the people that Betty felt alone without in these photos.
The mind control is really strong, Carolyn said. We sent her to twelve therapists; it was impossible to break through the mind control.
Carolyn said she calls and texts Betty all the time, though she wasn’t sure if it was really Betty’s number or if Betty even had access to a phone. “Once in a while I get a call,” Carolyn said.
I remembered that Betty had a phone and a camera, which you see in most of these photos.
Carolyn said that if Betty wanted to get out, she would. “I would make sure,” said Carolyn.
The photograph tells you where I saw the sun go down Wednesday night. Okay, if you don’t know it’s the FLDS temple outside Eldorado, Texas.
This is how the trip goes:
Wake up before 6am.
Make my kids’ lunches for the next three days. Let my wife’s dog out to pee.
Say goodbye. Drive to airport. A bunch of other annoyances en route to getting on plane, like the $15 charge to check a suitcase and the TSA agent who asks me to remove my hoodie.
Buy three chocolate chip scones at Starbucks, which I will eat at various moments over the next couple days and/or finally discard when they get too stale and hard.
Talk on plane with Brooke about how to save the newspaper industry and swap a bunch of polygamy news so that we’re current. Here’s one item we talked about, the blog of a “young” “mormon” “girl” “looking into” joining a plural marriage. Interesting, and a bit creepy. But I’m thinking it’s fake as all get out.
We land in Dallas to an urgent text message from a source: “Call me immediately!”
The news? Two polygamist leaders in Canada arrested and charged with polygamy. We both think, Why does this always happen when we travel somewhere?
Now we’re working a story in Canada and one in Texas. Too much chaos, too many phone calls. It’s nuts.
Layover is lunch time. Nearly settle for Popeye’s Chicken. Came this close. Instead, find a sit-down Mexican restaurant with power outlet at the bar to charge dead laptop and cel phone batteries.
Bad, expensive airport lunch.
At gate, sit on floor for almost two hours because it’s the only place near a power outlet. Fix multiple issues with Brooke’s laptop. Continue working Canada story. Wondering if we’ll rerouted there instead of Texas, but remembering how cold even southernmost Canada is at this time of year.
Fly to San Angelo. Rent car. Nibble on chocolate chip scone while driving to YFZ Ranch. Rushed in and meet a few people, some of whom have appeared on the blog.
Sent out to drive around the ranch, sans escort. Photograph beautiful sunset. Park on the rock pile and smell the mulch pile while we make calls reporting on and planning possible travel to Canada. Mom gives border crossing advice and says there is six feet of snow in Spokane.
Rejoin group at main house. Watch people eat olives, carrots, nuts, pickles. My picture is taken. Photograph subject of interview (which can’t be talked about just yet).
Drive to San Angelo while on phone about Canada (can’t really discuss the final plans here). Arrive at Outback Steakhouse ten minutes before closing. Order. Eat. Order cheesecake.
Check in at hotel. Talk Brooke into not leaving for tomorrow’s story until the late hour of 8:15am local time. Put cheesecake in fridge, uneaten.
Dream about cheesecake.
Last post from the media availability with FLDS women on the YFZ Ranch after they were removed from their children by CPS. This is Marie, who had three children taken in from her earlier in the day.
We loaded into vehicles and came right to Grandfather’s home. We immediately met with some of the attorneys. They asked us if we wanted to give our stories. About 5:30, they let the media in, and we gave our stories by Grandfather’s house. Our emotions were high, and the experience was fresh on our minds.
That night we slept on some bunk beds at the Big House. That bed felt good! My thoughts continually turned to my three boys. I yearned unto the Lord that they would not feel that I had forsaken them, for as I walked back to famous side room, I thought, “I’d rather die than have them take these precious children from me. I’d rather fight to the death then let them do that.” But the Heavenly Father had a different plan, and I have learned that His ways are best.
After she had talked with several reporters, a concerned Rod Parker walked over and told Marie to head upstairs, for her own sake. She was obviously spent. You can read Marie’s personal account of the raid at this link.
(For the record, that’s a composite panoramic of several photographs.)
During the media availability with FLDS women whose children had been taken by CPS at the YFZ Ranch, the balcony overlooking the scene was a sort of time out box. When they were done reliving their stories to reporters, they could go up the stairs and be away from us.
As the media availability on the YFZ Ranch continued, the FLDS women were very emotional telling their personal accounts of being separated from their children by CPS earlier that day.
Not only the Kleenex, look at the body language in the fingers.
The reporter from People Magazine spoke a lot to this group of women:
They seemed to be speaking more about their lifestyle than about losing their children, though I can’t be sure— it wasn’t my interview. I wondered if they would get the cover over Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie.
These two were posing for the photographer People Magazine had hired:
And this is the moment when he took the shot that put them on the cover of People Magazine. Bet they never thought in a million years they would staring out at every check-out lane in America’s grocery stores.
Last frame for today:
This woman told me about the mormon hymn book she had taken with her to the shelter, “I’m so glad I had this with me.”
More photos from the first ever FLDS media opportunity at the YFZ Ranch, this time focusing on the journalists and media that were there.
You know how I said before that it turned into a mix and mingle? See:
Marie got a lot of attention. She was obviously very distraught over her three young children being taken away.
One reporter gave her a hug:
At one point I started watching a reporter asking Sally questions about the claims of child-brides and criminal activity among the FLDS living on the ranch. She wouldn’t answer and kept trying to keep the conversation on the children being taken away from their mothers, but the newsman kept pursuing his line of tough questions. Finally she couldn’t take it anymore and put her head in her hands:
Here is the rest of the sequence as Sally walked off on the reporter. This happened fast, two seconds tops:
My timing is perfect. I spend the weekend at home, soaking up family time. Monday I fly back into San Angelo and just barely pick up my rental car when the phone rings.
“The women have been kicked out of the shelter, separated from their children. Get to the ranch immediately. The FLDS are going to let us in.”
Wow. Can you even imagine the idea of the FLDS holding a press conference, let alone letting us onto their sacred YFZ Ranch? The place where they’ve built their temple? To think that just a few days ago my helicopter ride over the YFZ was the best access I’d ever had.
I get there quick and a huge media convoy is lined up at the gate waiting to get in. We wait, and wait. An FLDS guy at the gate is keeping a list of which networks and newspapers everyone is with. They are keeping us waiting until a crew from a certain Utah news outlet shows up. The sun is getting lower and the national media are getting very cranky, complaining to the FLDS guy at the gate about making us wait.
I find out later that the people we were waiting for were at a grocery store filling prescriptions and buying oranges. I guess they didn’t know that CNN, the networks, and even People Magazine were waiting on them.
There are many photos from this first-ever FLDS media event. (It was the first ever, right?) So I’m just going to go through them in the order they were shot (and there will be more posts to come). Here’s what I saw when we drove onto the ranch and up to the building where everything would happen:
These women had arrived back home at the YFZ Ranch earlier today after CPS separated them from their children.
They lined up and watched as the media unloaded their gear and got set up. We were all unsure as to how this would take place. Up until now, the FLDS didn’t talk, so what would happen?
Rod Parker (above) gave the women some tips, which from memory amounted to telling them to simply tell their stories. Parker advised all of the media to not stand too close and not crowd in on anybody. You know, not swoop in and swarm anyone like a big media pack will often do. We all agreed, but after a few minutes it was just a big mingle and everyone on all sides seemed okay with that.
I started out photographing this woman as she told her story. Other women (mostly younger) stayed up on the balcony. Maybe they weren’t in any condition to talk about what had happened.
I focused in on this woman, Sally, who was talking about how the women were separated from their children:
Tears in her eyes.
I’ve heard from people that they felt the FLDS didn’t seem to cry enough when talking about their kids being taken, that there were no tears in their eyes.
I can only point out the situation as I have before: these are mothers who had their children taken away. Thousands of years of human history tell us that whether or not the removal of the children was justified or not, the mothers will be devastated.
You can argue about the right or wrong of it. My role is to illustrate the story, nothing more.
There were a few FLDS members still on the ranch. Like the woman (or man?) in the photo above watching me with binoculars.
Most were men, but then here’s a woman in a blue dress looking off a balcony.
Here are four men walking to a building. Notice the numbers painted on the sidewalk. These were markings made by law enforcement to track the various buildings on the ranch.
I started photographing this group of men…
…as they walked across the ranch.
They approached this building and gathered with others.
Law enforcement from local, state, and federal agencies had set up a base at the FLDS temple.
A guy with a camera was at the top of the temple steps…
…and you can see the door which was breached.
I saw these guys from afar, seated against the wall. I thought they may have been detainees but they’re just cops eating dinner.
Here’s the chow line. And here is something that’s never been reported. I just noticed it while editing through the aerial photographs…
This guy in the yellow shirt, it looks like his dinner blew away and he had to reach down and grab it. Then, at the end there, he drops something else. Breaking news!
Here are police at the main entrance to the ranch on county road 300.
We had been told that the airspace over the YFZ Ranch was shut down for another week, meaning that we wouldn’t be able to get any aerial shots until then. Since we had no expectation that the FLDS would ever allow us onto their most private of property, shots from the air were the only way we could see the place and try understand the situation. I got a sudden call late on April 8th from another photographer, telling me that there was a guy with a small helicopter giving people flights over the ranch. The airspace had unexpectedly opened. I ran to the car and hurried over to Eldorado before the sun went down.
The first thing you notice is the massive scale of the YFZ Ranch. The amount of labor it must have taken to build this place…
Notice that the garden areas are built up on about three feet of topsoil that was trucked in and put down over the natural rocky ground.
It’s like a small town, with its own maintenance facilities, etc.
A new guard tower was under construction. Here’s the view of the guard tower looking up the only road in or out.
There were a lot more cameras and reporters at today’s press conference at Eldorado High School. Marleigh Meisner of Texas CPS confirmed a total of 159 children and 60 adults removed from the FLDS YFZ Ranch to this point.
We drive over by the Civic Center where a crew working for Oprah is interviewing Shannon Price of the Diversity Foundation, which helps teens leaving the FLDS sect (above), and Carolyn Jessop, the bestselling author and ex-FLDS member (below). Jessop is the ex-wife of Merrill Jessop, the overseer of the YFZ Ranch.
They say they’ve been brought in by Texas authorities to help provide cultural understanding and to facilitate communication with the FLDS. It seems unlikely that Jessop and Price would receive any welcome from the FLDS here in Texas, considering their positions against Warren Jeffs’ fundamentalist church.
I photograph Shannon’s badge to make sure I spell her name right. I send in a photo with her name correct, but something else wrong. I heard Shannon say that she had family roots in the Short Creek community and in my caption I mistakenly called her a former FLDS member.
Carolyn expressed hope in the possibility of seeing some of the children (from sister-wives) that she left behind when she took her own eight children and left the community.
I don’t know if that meeting ever occurred, though it seems doubtful Jessop would receive any welcome under these conditions.
There seemed to be this prevailing thought among the people involved in the raid, especially CPS. That is that once the women were safely off the ranch and out of the control of the FLDS men, they would be happy to leave the group for the outside world. As far as we know, not one person caught up in the raid has left the group. They all went back.
As you have now figured out, these YFZ revisited posts are not about posting a portfolio, or the best photographs from the events of last April. These posts are mostly about exposition through putting out a lot of photographs. It’s a loose edit, and there are reasons for that.
We got to town and saw several buses parked at the county seat. Since the civic center was too barricaded for photographs, we followed three buses to the First Baptist Church.
Looking at various photos of the food being loaded, it looks a little better than the first night. In this and other photos I see broccoli, bananas, oranges, various juices, oatmeal, and only one box of potato chips.
The first people begin to come out to get on the bus.
I try to photograph everyone. Here are some of them.
At one point they walk out a few people behind two sheets. Looking at the entire set of photographs now, these are the people who were behind the sheet:
The sheet stayed out near the entrance to the buses, blocking the shot for photographers on the other side.
At left in this one (below) is Eldorado Mayor John Nikolauk:
As the buses drove off we got in front of them for this shot…
…and then followed them down the highway…
…with no idea where they were headed.
We are at the police roadblock on county road 300. It’s late afternoon. They still won’t let us anywhere near the ranch. We are miles from even the gate, let alone the action. Before there had been just two troopers manning this roadblock. Now there are more. And they are multiplying. Every minute it seems another patrol car pulls up and parks. The officers get out and start chatting, telling jokes, and whatever else men do.
Why the build-up, I wonder. Someone says it’s just a shift change. I won’t pay it much attention then.
An ambulance goes up toward the YFZ Ranch, still sealed off with a large police presence searching the place. Now a fire engine goes up, too. I’m not paying any of this much attention, snapping a frame or two just in case. But then I overhear a voice on the police radio that says something like, “You’re going to enter the temple?” Next a bunch of the troopers get in their cars and speed up the road toward the ranch.
I shoot the frame above just as it’s almost too late to show the line of cars going up the road. Only later will I realize that this build-up of force wasn’t a shift change. It was part of the operation to breach the FLDS temple.
We go back up to the parking lot by the Catholic Church, which is the best vantage point for the temple. And the photo above makes it look a lot closer than it is. That photo was only possible with a super telephoto 600mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter on it. For the photo-geeks, the total millimeters of lens for this shot (including 1.3 sensor crop): 1,092mm. Crazy. That temple is miles away.
Now a helicopter starts buzzing around. The sun is down and the light is disappearing.
We’re hearing that the helicopter is for any emergency medical transport that might be necessary in the stand-off over the search of the temple. A local reporter hints that the temple might be rigged with explosives that will be set off once the police go in. We will find out later that instead of preparing for a murderous martyrdom, the FLDS men are ringing the temple singing hymns and crying as the first fundamentalist mormon temple is, in their view, destroyed.
Now it is black out and the helicopter is still buzzing around. We hear it and see its flashing red lights. The temple is lit up, a brilliant white edifice way out in the black night. After tonight the temple will not be lit. Not after the police climb the walls and breach the doors. Not after outsiders enter the sect’s holiest building and search it for signs of child abuse. From now on the temple will now remain dark at night. The light has been extinguished.