portrait - Stephanie Sinclair

Polygamy in America: inside the FLDS

After the funeral service for Foneta Jessop, an FLDS man is seen linking arms with six of his wives, two of them Foneta's daughters.
After the funeral service for Foneta Jessop, an FLDS man is seen linking arms with six of his wives, two of them Foneta's daughters. Stephanie Sinclair / VII for National Geographic

American photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair won this year’s Visa d’Or prize for best feature for her report Polygamy in America, an intimate look at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) community in Eldorado, Texas. Never before had this most secretive of Mormon sects let an outsider see how they live.

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Dressed in near identical - but not quite - pastel-coloured knee-length prairie dresses and with near-identical - but not quite - hairstyles, the women and girls of the FLDS look like they are from another age. Their lifestyle is also unconventional.

While they don’t reject technology - they have internet, mobile phones and use cars - they privilege family activity, live off the land and try to “keep things on the innocent side”, explains Sinclair.

They practise plural marriage - girls are married young and it is not uncommon for them to have more than 10 children.

Having lived in the Middle East, Sinclair was familiar with plural marriages and polygamy, with Islam allowing men to take up to four wives.

But her interest in this dissident branch of the Mormons - who split off from the mainstream Latter Day Saints in the early 1900s because they refused to renounce their polygamous practices - began in April 2008.

A 16-year-old girl rang a domestic violence centre claiming her middle-aged husband had sexually and physically abused her.

The police then raided a remote compound in Texas known as the Yearning for Zion Ranch.

And while the call later turned out to be a hoax, explains Sinclair, “the fact the residents were from disciples of the polygamist FLDS lent credibility to the accusations”.

A total of 440 children were taken away by social workers and police officers in buses. They returned two months later.

Sinclair wanted to see how the community had managed to survive “amidst what they consider a battle over faith and the authorities desire to end their unconventional way of living”.

A photojournalist with VII agency, she had already worked on feminist issues like forced marriages in Afghanistan and female circumcision in Indonesia. She admits she was initially drawn to the subject from a women’s rights point of view but that the issues are far from clear-cut.

“The first story was giving a voice to the girls in these cases. They were asking them to testify before a Grand Jury.

"They said they felt stuck in the middle. Either they testified against their husbands and fathers or they themselves were looking at jail time by refusing to testify. The FLDS let me tell that story because they felt it was an unfair situation.”

Sinclair says she saw it as an opportunity to hear from a group of people that had never felt comfortable voicing their thoughts before. She decided to remain as neutral as possible, just listen to them and document their lives.

As they had so many detractors and critics everywhere she says she “didn’t feel the need to echo that over and over.”

They were initially very wary of her, concerned that photos could be used against them in court. She didn’t rush it. When she moved to Texas, she spent the first few months just researching and talking to people without taking a single shot.

Her photos show a very close, deeply pious community that respects rules and traditions. We see weddings and funerals.

Joe Jessop (88) is an elder of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). In Hildale, Utah, he has tried to fulfill his duty of building up his "celestial family" of 5 wives and 46 children, and 239 grandchildren.
Joe Jessop (88) is an elder of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). In Hildale, Utah, he has tried to fulfill his duty of building up his "celestial family" of 5 wives and 46 children, and 239 grandchildren. Stephanie Sinclair / VII for National Geographic

And scenes from everyday life: family prayers every morning at home before breakfast, hours spent farming the land, bringing in the hay, sheering the sheep.

Every member of the community, including children, is expected to take part in activities. But there’s relaxation time too: kids sledging, playing on huge wooden swings, teenage girls tending their long locks and giggling, taking photos of one another on their cell phones.

When one of the community elders, Joe Jessop, celebrated his 88th birthday, and his huge family of five wives, 46 children and 239 grandchildren came from Canada and Texas to celebrate in Hildale, Utah, Sinclair offered to do a family portrait.

The photographer remembers standing precariously on a ladder in freezing temperatures, which made it difficult to get the many grandchildren to stay in the picture. Still everyone looks happy and proud.

“They were partly laughing at me," says Sinclair. “But yes they’re proud of their family.

"This [the celestial family] is what they believe is essential to their salvation. The mainstream Mormon church believes polygamy is essential to salvation too and there are 15 million Mormons in the world. They just don’t believe that that is necessary in this lifetime.”

The issues are complicated, Sinclair says. On the one hand the FLDS practises polygamy, which is illegal in the States, so legally they only have one wife, even if religiously they may have several. Then there’s the issue of underage marriage.

“I’m not defending underage marriage but the legal age of marriage in most states [in the US] is 16 with parental consent (which they of course had) and in Texas, before this group moved there, it was 14.

"The consensus is that they moved to Texas because this was the case. So had polygamy been legal they wouldn’t have been charged with rape.”

Sinclair says that while she does not necessarily agree with all FLDS beliefs and actions, and that some of the criticism may be true, she remains convinced their reasons for practising plural marriage are religious.

“I do believe that the practise of plural marriage and polygamy is done in a religious context and not out of a perverted sense – at least with the people I met”.

At a time when Americans are deeply divided over religious issues such as the building of mosques, Sinclair’s photos invite us to reflect before passing judgment.

“The more I got to know them, the more I was intrigued by the religious freedom aspect and how in a country that was founded on freedom of religion, how far does that go.

"We’ve become much more religious since we’ve been in war… any community becomes more conservative and goes back to their faith in tough times."

Hence an ever greater need for understanding on all sides.

“Instead of coming in there with lots of judgments and a super-strong point of view, I decided that I was going to try and help this community take their guard down and thus also help the public take their guard down and so a dialogue could commence.” Amen.

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