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|| News Item: Posted 2003-04-01

Eye Witness: The Story Behind the Elizabeth Smart Photos
By Trent Nelson, The Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson/Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson/Salt Lake Tribune

This goose allegedly flew into a powerline in Dale Porter's back yard, causing a quick death. Behind Porter's home is Highland Lake, a small body of water with its own community of geese and ducks.
So I'm sitting in the office organizing photos or whatever when an editor rings to scramble me off to a shocking bit of spot news. What he tells me I can hardly believe. A goose had flown into a power line and knocked out the electricity to parts of the neighborhood around the Cottonwood Country Club. Apparently the goose was still dead on the grass in Dale Porter's backyard.


It always helps a spot news photo come contest time if there's a dead body in it. Like a good photojournalist I grabbed the pool 600mm lens, went out the door and raced south in a flash.

In this profession we are lucky to witnesses the beauty and drama of life. And even though there is a camera in front of your face, it's not much of an emotional shield. It's easy and sometimes dangerous to get caught up emotionally in a story. I mean, when Dale Porter picked up the dead goose with his bare hands, spread its wings out and said, "People don't have agood idea of how big these birds really are. Take a picture of me holding it."

I was using my camera to shield my smile and stifle any laughter. As the dead bird's flaccid neck swung back and forth like a pendulum, I thought, This guy is actually holding a dead bird + I've got a camera + does it get any better?

I was in the office later that day when the phone rang again. Same editor. Another unbelievable bit of spot news. Elizabeth Smart found alive in the suburb of Sandy. Bloody Hell! This one was truly beyond belief. We were out the door in a flash.

Photo by Trent Nelson/Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson/Salt Lake Tribune

This goose allegedly flew into a powerline in Dale Porter's back yard, causing a quick death.
For those of you who can't read and don't watch television, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart had been kidnapped from her home June 5th of last year. The story was the biggest in a long summer filled with child abduction and abuse stories throughout the country. The police thought they had their man, a suspect who died in jail protesting his innocence. I'm not going out on a limb by saying that just about everyone thought Elizabeth had been killed and would probably never be found.

Some in the Smart family, however, had this funny idea that she was still alive. As Elizabeth's uncle, photographer Tom Smart told me last year, "You know, I'm a crazy guy. But I know she's coming home." As months passed with no clues in sight, Elizabeth returning alive seemed such a long shot it was crazy.

As the story broke, the experiences of three photographers are worth looking at.

Salt Lake Tribune photographer Francisco Kjolseth was sent to the Salt Lake City police station, where Elizabeth had been taken to reunite with her family. Media access was non-existent. Positioned in front of the station, hoping to catch a glimpse of Elizabeth were an estimated twenty still photographers and another twenty television photographers. (For a market like Salt Lake City, that's a lot of people.)

"I was guessing they'd come out the back," said Kjolseth. "I ended up standing on a two-foot tall uneven rock shooting over the fence with a 400mm lens & 1.4 converter." He waited for two and a half hours. "My back was killing me."

Then there was a flurry of activity. A nondescript van pulled up behind the station near a back door. Elizabeth and her mother were visible for only a moment as they quickly got into the van.

"From the moment they threw open the doors to the moment she was in the van it was about two seconds," said Kjolseth. He got off six frames. Several other photographers were also covering the back exits, but no one nailed theshot like Kjolseth. Other photographers were either blocked, out-of-focus, or missed it altogether.

Photo by Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune

Elizabeth Smart, accompanied by her mother Lois and two unidentified men gets rushed into an unmarked van from the Salt Lake City Police department and taken to her home.
Kjolseth's photo was put on the wire that evening. For about sixteen hours it was the only quality photo of Elizabeth after her release. It was published and used everywhere.

Two and a half hours of waiting for two seconds. If you plan on working in this field you will be in a similar situation at some point. Will you be ready when the door opens?

Salt Lake City photographer Dan Gorder is obsessed with photography. He photographs snowboarding, street scenes, concerts, parties - whatever he comes across. He spends a large portion of his income on new lenses, film, an inkjet printer. You know the type - you're probably just like him.

When he saw a photograph of Elizabeth's kidnapper on a local newscast, Gorder quickly realized he had photographed this unusual man. Several months ago Gorder was at your average backyard beer-drinking party when a man dressed in robes and looking like Jesus walked in off the street. Even stranger, following him were two quiet women in white robes wearing veils over their faces; only their eyes were visible.

Finding them hilarious and different, Gorder photographed the odd trio.

But now, looking at the image in his files, Gorder quickly realized that "Jesus Guy" was Elizabeth's kidnapper (Brian David Mitchell). And one of the veiled women was almost certainly Elizabeth Smart.

"I saw where she was, cropped it super-tight, blew it up, and I could just tell right away," he said. "Just to think back - so weird!

"(At the party), one of my friends was talking to Elizabeth, asking her what she was doing with these people," Gorder remembers. "She wouldn't say anything."

Gorder's photos are truly bizarre. You can see them here:

In his hands was a very newsworthy image. And a very valuable image. But with preparations for war with Iraq dominating the news, Gorder didn't think there would be much interest in his photographs.

"I didn't actually think that there'd be such a response to them," he said."I figured people would be interested, some of the news agencies, but I didn't expect the full-blown response I got. It was just crazy."

After contacting at least one newspaper in Salt Lake City and a wireservice, Gorder quickly cut a deal with KUTV, the local CBS station. For giving the station exclusive rights to his photographs he was paid a rumored "high four-figures."

"If I hadn't been in the full-blown broke mode, I would have held out," he said. "There were a few days there were I didn't have rights at all. If I would have held out, I would have made so much more money."

Gorder is quick to point out that he isn't complaining with the deal he made. But if he could do it again, he says, "I would have thought way harder about it. I would have seen what my options were. But what's done is done."

Anne Elizabeth Maurer also had photographs of a veiled Elizabeth from the same party Gorder was at. Scott McKiernan of Zuma Press, who is distributing Maurer's images, told Photo District News he figures the photos will clear $100,000 in sales over time.

For the first two weeks after the story broke, all rights to Gorder's images remained tied up with KUTV. Steve Charlier, the news director of KUTV told Photo District News that his station would not be selling Gorder's photos. "I'm not going to profit off this," he told the magazine. "We do news stories. We don't sell pictures."

After consulting with friends and his lawyer, Gorder decided to pursue the return of print rights from the television station. After a couple of calls from his attorney, KUTV returned those specific rights to Gorder.

At this point, Gorder is sitting tight. He has spoken with a few agencies, but is unsure which direction he'll take in selling his images. With the war in Iraq going on full blast, he figures he's got some time to look at his options.

Photo by Deseret News/Getty/Tom Smart

Photo by Deseret News/Getty/Tom Smart

Elizabeth Smart holds her brother, William, at their home Thursday, March 13, 2003. Elizabeth, who was taken from her home last June, was found Wednesday. Her sister Mary Katherine is at shown in background.
A large contingent of national media were in Salt Lake City the day after Elizabeth was found, but meaningful images were hard to come by. The road to the Smart home was blocked off by police. There was no access to Elizabeth. The two press conferences scheduled that day provided nothing we hadn't all been photographing for the past nine months - emotional family members, especially Elizabeth's father Ed standing in front of microphones.

The raw emotional scenes of joy that must have been taking place in the Smart household were strictly off-limits and out of reach to photographers - except for Tom Smart, a photographer with the Deseret News who happens to be Elizabeth's uncle.

"There was really nothing that showed (Elizabeth) with her family that showed she was okay," said Tom. "I felt strongly that the world's been praying for this little girl." Obviously, they would now want to see her.

"People would try to get a photo of her one way or another," said Smart. And "It wasn't a situation where you could bring in a pool as far as intruding on the family.

"It was really important to me that it wasn't a situation where we were trying to take advantage of her. But simply a way for the world to see that she was okay and with her family. And that there was a lot of joy and happiness there.

"I talked to Ed and Lois (Elizabeth's parents) about it and they said I could take some photos. Some of the photos are posed of the family. A lot of them are actually photojournalism. The one of her holding her little brother - it was a true captured moment. Just by chance my parents came and that was the first time they had seen her and I got to document that."

By shooting the photographs on his own time, Smart owns the rights to the images. They were given to AP, AFP, and Reuters to distribute for one-time use. Tom struck a deal with Getty that gives his share of any future proceeds to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Another important part of the deal for Tom was that there would be no exclusive sales. The photos would be available to all.

"It went around the world," said Smart. "I'd like to think that it was agood thing to do."

But what was it like photographing these moments, which must have been very emotional for you?

"I was in photojournalist mode, really," said Smart. "I don't think that I was any more nervous shooting those photos than others I've taken. I felt that it was very important to get something that showed a real moment. Obviously I don't think I've ever taken anything more important than those photos.

"Nobody could have been in that position except for me at that time. It's a situation where they trust me completely and I can be a fly on the wall in that situation."

So now it's over and a quiet summer seems to be approaching Salt Lake City. But you never really know. The same day you're out photographing a dead goose, thinking about how boring your town is, the big story hits. Be ready when it falls into your lap.

(Trent Nelson is the chief photographer of the Salt Lake Tribune and a frequent contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter. He will again be teaching a class on digital cameras and workflow at the annual Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau.)

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