Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Converse, Texas FLDS Part 2: Sticky Hands and Monogamous Kitchens

Since June, several FLDS families moved to Converse, Texas which is just outside San Antonio. They are waiting out, in their words, "camping out" until they can return to the ranch with intact families. I don't think any members would tell you living in Converse is horrible or unbearable. Rather it is uncomfortable and stressful, feeling suspended in a strange place, awaiting permission to return home. Located in suburbia, the space and resources they are accustomed to on the ranch are over three hours away by car.

Over three days, DNews writer Nancy Perkins and myself spent over 24 hours in a crappy rental driving between San Angelo and Converse, trying to gain access to their lives in Converse. The families we visited were always friendly, just hesitant to talk to the press as they are in the middle of custody battles and other legal indictments. As a journalist I try and stay above opinions as much as possible, and as sympathetic as this story ended up being, I still feel like we did a good job. On the second trip out there one of the first things I remember Barbara Jessop's remarks regarding her face and disposition leaving the court house in San Angelo after a judge ruled that one of her daughters would be taken into state custody. I was there at the court that day, and she didn't show much emotion on those stone steps and path to the car after the ruling. In a few different newspaper stories it was reported that she left with no emotion. This looked like the case but anyone who has spent time with the FLDS knows that especially outside of their environment they are not known for visually showing a lot of emotion. It was insinuated that she was cold and indifferent after losing her daughter. It is understandable from the public view, we seem accustomed to fiery statements, dropping to knees and shaking fists, and other ways of expressing oneself. At her home days later, as she expressed a slice of sadness regarding the public judgment of her and her validity of a mother I realized that at least for our readers, the FLDS was being reported, at least photographically, in one way; at court. Every photo we ran with a story that week had either Schleicher County or Tom Green County Courthouse in the background. Either walking in or walking out of a giant symbol and reminder of all the allegations, charges, etc. These are important photos, and the court stories that accompanied them were also important and well balanced, but in the end, in my opinion as a photographer, I felt we needed to go in a little deeper and try and at least show a different view. Keep in mind, that the court stories have just been more numerous and available in the past, I don't feel we have necessarily neglected one side of the story, but this other view was due last week. At least one story that didn't involve looming pillars of a court room in the background. I wanted to show some sort of natural environment. I felt like the FLDS and our readers deserved this.

Nancy and I came up with a 2 part story, documenting the current situation of Barbara and her family in Converse, and then updating another family's situation who has returned to the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado. Both parts were shot in one long day that started before the sun came up in San Angelo.

All the church members treated us very warmly, although at times when I had a camera on them and was waiting for a smile, a moment, some sort of moment I would get a quick glance through the lens that told me that as hospitable and cooperative as they were being, they were not thrilled about being photographed. Tammy (photograph on the street) and I had a good talk as we walked with Benjamin (Barbara's son, red hair) to his make shift chicken coop that he was building on the side of another members house. She is a licensed teacher and very articulate. We shared pictures on ipods and digi cameras of our respective families, and she provided some insight about the religious reaction of church members to the raid, courts, etc. Words like endure filled her sentences. Ben smiled wryly as I got this nasty adhesive junk on my hands while trying to help him with the chicken coop. He was especially not keen on me being there, I think he saw my seriously industrial grade sticky hands as a little gift from God. As we were there longer, they all started to soften up and become more comfortable. This is largely due to Nancy, (the writer) who has covered stories about them since the Colorado City days. I photographed them getting lunch ready and they didn't even ask, rather just set two extra places for Nancy and I. I have to stay away from opinions, but I warmly appreciate their hospitality and courage while I photographed them. At times I felt like my photos were like those stupid paparazzi pictures in tabloids of celebrities that say "they're just like you....they get ice cream....they comb their hair....they take their kids to the zoo......". Partly because, the photographs, were just the normal day to them, one that is not too different from most of our own. A sense of humor even surfaced at one point, Barbara and Tammy were talking about how small the kitchens were in Converse...."we call them one wife kitchens - monogamous kitchens" she said softly while smiling then even laughed a little when Nancy asked if she could print that.

To read Nancy's story please click here
I will post Part 1 later today or tomorrow.


Fly on the Wall said...

Thanks for sharing. This gallery is much better than the measly TWO photos I got to see in the paper. I haven't offended anyone at the News in a few years, so here goes:

Don't the decision-makers over there realize that Nancy got you access that only one other outlet could get? This should have gotten much better play. Keep a copy of this issue in your bag for a get out of jail free card the next time a photo editor takes you to task for any reason at all. Just pull it out and you'll get a pass.

Oh well, today is a new day.

christy said...

hey mike. you do such a good job. i have a serious question for you though that i would like you to post back with an answer when you have 5 seconds.. how do the ladies get their hair to swoop? i'm serious i want to know. if you have any idea, let me know. its interesting to me