Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Sting and Sleepless Night

She cried to the officer and denied everything. With a crumbled carbon copy of a citation in her hands; her purse hanging from the inside of her elbow, I watched her walk down the throat of the night until she disappeared, northbound on Washington Blvd. in Ogden.

Couple weeks ago I went with Ogden Police Department's Metro Gang Unit while they performed a prostitution sting. Pretty sad thing to cover. They stung from both sides, undercover officers posed as prostitutes and then others posed as potential clients. There is a definite relationship between drugs and Ogden's prostitution problem. In the two nights we spent on the street, we didn't leave a 6-8 block area. Directly east of downtown Ogden, many apartments are returning to the hands of slum lords and according to the officers we rode with, "...crack is back." One officer said, "this is Ogden, not Hollywood..." when she could somehow tell what I was thinking after the first sting. These were not beautiful women out to make money. They were not what you think of when you think of the proprietors of what is argued as one of the world's oldest professions. I think many of us have no idea of prostitution problems in our cities because we don't even notice them. It is not knee highs and patent leather, it is sadness and desperation under a t-shirt and jeans. I don't mean to completely victimize them, it is seen as a crime. Although, today we are intelligent enough to know that there are usually social reasons and origins of such crimes. This latent desperation could be heard over the radio transmitting from a hidden radio planted in the undercover police vehicle, probably a foot away from her arms resting on the door frame. It is a strange thing to hear someone make a mistake in real time.

The second night undercover police posing as prostitutes was added to the sting. It wasn't on dark street corners near liquor stores, it was early daylight soaked evening, at the vacant parking lot of a credit union on a street full of homes, some with manicured lawns and trimmed hedges.

Within two and half hours, there was no shortage of potential customers. Some just stopped to talk, others stopped made plans and then were stopped by police. I was across the street hidden in some bushes. I wondered how many times I have walked by a car with someone talking to the driver as unassuming as this woman passing by.

While being pulled over one would-be "john" frantically called his wife on the phone, not a move one would expect, but when she arrived on scene to see her husband led to a police car, red and blue alternatively soaking her face, she was informed what her husband was being booked for by a plain clothes police officer. It showed me another dimension of what was happening around me. From prostitutes being arrested to those looking for prostitutes, the pictures were pretty similar; that look of shame covered with a mild panic, this woman's reaction was different in so many ways. Seeing this and what it made me think, led me to an area where my inexperience and youth as a photojournalist surface.

Blame a decadent society, blame drugs, call them deviants, blame moral decay, it doesn't matter, the disappointed and sadness in the face of those pulled over after being stung, as well as the man's wife's face went on to rob sleep from me later that night. This is an area where my inexperience and youth as a photojournalist surfaced. I got home around 2:00 am and couldn't sleep. All I was thinking about was what it would mean if some wife or girlfriend saw a picture of their husband or boyfriend being caught by police. I started to panic as to what was the right thing to do. Do we show problems as raw as they happened, even if it means ruining someone's relationship, for the greater good of affecting people through the photos? Do we censor ourselves as we remember all the stupid things we have done that WEREN'T privy to a newspaper photographer's eyes? While mentally trudging through this issue, I thought about how I wasn't as worried about the prostitutes as I was those stung trying to pick them up. As if their status in society made it alright to publicly show their problems and mistakes. This made me feel even more guilty and ashamed at my thought process; -needless to say I didn't sleep much that night.
Although this conclusion is hopefully just a rest stop on a longer trip towards answering the question I will probably encounter throughout my career, I feel like it makes the most sense for now - There cannot be any set standards for this sort of thing, every case, every photo and it's attached consequence needs to be examined and weighed out. The better the photographer, the journalist, the better their understanding of the situation and it's social implications, the better the photograph, the more legitimacy granted in publishing photos that have power to affect people. Maybe this is right? What do you think? Probably not anything we can navigate through a blog, but something to think about.
Deseret News reporter Ben Winslow did a great job finding and reporting this story. I have been wanting to cover something with a bit more grit than what I have been shooting this summer, and I got my wish through this story, got some mental dilemmas as well. To read his well written story click here,5143,700251272,00.html

To watch the audio slideshow I produced courtesy of click here,5587,5148,00.html


Drew said...

Thanks for the link up Mike. BTW the hooker photos are well done. Curious thought though, what made you guys come up to Ogden for the story and not another location?

Mike Terry said...

I think it had to do with the double homicide up there few weeks ago, as well as other news stories about the area and problem. Like yours and others. Although I don't think us and the standard are considered competitors, all of Utah is still our beat so we try and cover what we can outside of SL and Provo. Being from the north I wish we did more up there. Who shot the photos for your guys' story?

Jeremy said...

Great post with thought provoking comments. I appreciated your honestly in sharing your internal debate and thought process.

Ty Cobb said...

Powerful post Mike it made me think alot about photography and past experences in my life. We had a naked prostitute kicked out of a moving car on my street a few years ago so I know it is everywhere. Keep up the great work.

Baroque said...

Whoa ... this is way intense. The individuality of each actor in this tragic reality was conveyed with so much thought and compassion by your photos and written comments. Really raw and thought-provoking ... thanks for sharing and outlining your thought process. I sometimes wonder if anyone else sees the world in this way ... nice to see that others have the inner dialogue too and wrestle with those "big issues" ... my friends and I lovingly refer to those conversations as "trying to save the world"

Anonymous said...

Mike, Let me know when you want to come and do a ride along with me.
Blake Day

Camille said...

Wow, this is surreal. My husband has gone on police ride-alongs with my brother-in-law, and he talked about stuff like this, but he never put it in this light before.

(By the way, Shalynna sent me here because of a post I wrote a few days ago about prostitution; she thought I might enjoy your perspective, and she was right. Your pictures are fascinating.)