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How a Tribune photographer built trust with the insular FLDS community

It takes support from the community to cover important stories in distant parts of the state.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) FLDS members speak to the media after they were removed from their children Monday, April 14, 2008, at the YFZ "Yearning for Zion" Ranch near Eldorado, Texas.

In 2005 I drove to the bottom of Utah, to the twin desert border towns that make up Short Creek. It was my first assignment to photograph members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). And since we had no contacts in the group back then, I was on my own.

My cellphone showed no signal. And when I brought the camera to my eye people would run away, desperate to preserve their privacy. I felt cut off from everyone, isolated in this small, dusty, red rock town. It was a challenging environment for a photojournalist used to being welcomed.

On that day I would not have been able to imagine the mountain of work we would do in the following years covering the people who made up this sect, as well as the people who fled it. I’ve witnessed heartbreak and loss, joy and love, disagreement. There are many moments I will never be able to forget.

The years of work and source-building paid off dramatically in September when I was in Colorado City to try to catch the leader of a new splinter group. I knew he had an appointment before a judge, but I didn’t know the FBI was going to raid his house that day. I was close enough to hear the voice over the megaphone, yelling, “Come out with your hands up!”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) FBI agents raid the home of Samuel Bateman in Colorado City, Ariz., on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

I photographed FBI agents with assault rifles and body armor standing outside. When it was over and the man had been taken into custody I found myself with some of his followers.

And another story begins, built on years of work.

With your support, I can continue to nurture and build these relationships. With your support, we can continue telling the stories of those who have been silenced for far too long. Thank you for supporting The Salt Lake Tribune.

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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune photographer Trent Nelson visits with a guest after the Trib Talk Live: Polygamy in Short Creek presentation, at the Salt Lake Library, Wednesday, March 2, 2016.