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New Mormon photography exhibit tries to keep it real

The Light & Life exhibit at the LDS Church History Museum gives a glimpse of Mormons unplugged, from all over the world. The photographers say this is what is possible when photos are unstaged: we see people in all their messiness and beauty.

Sumalee Tudkeaw, left, of Sisket, Thailand. Photo by Cody Bell. Used with permission of LDS Church History Museum.

Last week when I was in Salt Lake City, I stopped by the LDS Church History Museum to see a small photography exhibit I had heard about. The “Light & Life” exhibit is small—you can see the whole thing in about 20 or 30 minutes—but, in its own way, it’s revolutionary.

That’s because it’s unplugged. These are the outtakes, the photos that happen naturally when official LDS Church photographers are finished with their staged shots for the Ensign or whatever. I loved them for that reason. (In fact, one of them was so real and true that it made me cry, which made it hard to conduct the following interview in a professional manner!)

For this, I sat down with the three people most responsible for the photography exhibit to talk about what it means to them. — JKR


RNS: How did this shift happen, toward more realism in the Church’s photography?

Cody Bell, photographer: In the beginning, we were photographing really specific assignments, to fit a specific article. There was a long list of requirements of the people, the colors, the composition. And there was also a really long list of acceptable requirements for church photographs: types of clothes, hairstyles, earrings, beards.

But as we’ve gone around shooting, we would take photos after the official photos. Afterward, we don’t put our cameras away, but take pictures from when we get there to when we leave. As we’ve presented some of these images, there’s been an appetite for them, and a preference for them over the staged photographs. A lot of the requests we get now are for images more like this, to photograph real events and real life. So rather than see that long list of requirements, the direction is more like, “We would like a photo of someone serving another person.” And then we just follow people and take photos of them.

In the past, we were setting up sacrament meetings on a Wednesday night, and it was staged. We’re moving away from the world of commercial photography and toward the world of photojournalism. The key point is that these people live their testimony every day. When we take photos of real life, it’s them sharing their testimony.

Laura Allred Hurtado, Global Acquisitions Art Curator: A new Visual Style Guide has been released by Correlation. In the most simplistic terms, Correlation is the department responsible for a unified message and doctrinal accuracy. The new guide calls for more authentic, real, honest depictions and stories of Latter-day Saints and moves away from the staged and frozen depictions of decades past.

Leslie Nilsson, photographer: It seems like in my life experience in the Church, we have been shown an idealized version of what being a member looks like. And with this new Global Visual Style Guide, the shift is to tell the reality. So they really encourage us now not to stage anything, not to fake. Not to use the studio, but to photograph with natural light. And I love it.

Josehine Scere of Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Leslie Nilsson. Used with permission of the LDS Church History Museum.

RNS: Some of the people’s stories in the photos are very moving and honest. These are real people with real problems.

Leslie Nilsson: I went around my neighborhood passing out invitations to this exhibit. I gave the same pitch to all of them: I hope that this display shows the church as a church of repentance, not a church of perfection. We’re real people. There are struggles. The gospel does not make you waterproof from struggle. But it gives you strength, and hope, and the opportunity to turn that hope into faith.

Josephine in Philadelphia is like that. She was abused when she was a child by people that her mother trusted. She’s burdened with struggles, with demons that haunt her.. She lives in a difficult place. She’s divorced and a single mother, but she says: “I have faith in Christ, and I have my son.” And she finds strength in the temple that is in Philadelphia now.

Laura Allred Hurtado: When you start sharing of yourself, those most vulnerable or failed parts of yourself, it can be beautiful. The people in the photographs and the stories they share are very personal and very honest about their lives. There’s joy and struggle both.

Carlos F. of Uruguay. Photo by Leslie Nilsson. Used with permission of LDS Church History Museum.

RNS: One part of the exhibit shows Carlos, a church member in Uruguay who relapsed into drug use after the pictures were taken.

Cody Bell: It sounds like he’s in a recovery center now in Montevideo. The stories are ongoing. When we saw this family at church, it was one of their first steps to fix their lives for their children. But drug addiction can be a “try and fail, try and fail” process.

Leslie Nilsson: I’m really happy that that picture made it in. We didn’t know what kind of images the church would let us display. But everything we submitted was approved. Nothing was taken out.

RNS: How did the exhibit come about?

Laura Allred Hurtado: Cody and Leslie brought over a portfolio of their work paired with some of the stories that were tied to their photographs. It reminded me of “Humans of New York.” What I liked about that project is that you see people’s humanity, no matter where they’re from. That’s what struck me, was that it was a way you could share, in really small and particular ways, different members of the Church. By sharing those individual stories, you expand the Church more broadly on a global level and you open it up to a place of more honesty, more humanity in general.

So Cody and Leslie reached out to me and also to Maryanne Andrus, the exhibition manager. We believed in the story and in the power of the photographs, and the need to help shape what the Church looks like for our audiences.

RNS: How have visitors responded to the exhibit so far?

Leslie Nilsson: Feedback has been really positive. A lot of people have said things like, “It’s about time.” My older brother came and saw it, and called me. “Leslie, it took me a few pictures, looking at it, to get it. I just didn’t understand what you were trying to do. Once I figured out that it was slices of real life, it was an epiphany for me.” He was teaching Elders Quorum that week and decided to teach the lesson about that. He really got it: just tell the truth..


The Light & Life exhibit will be on display until January 2019. Admission is free and open to the public.


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