Documenting Mormon Culture in Utah

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Aug. 7 2013 11:02 AM

Documenting Mormon Culture in Utah

Every year, the state of Utah celebrates Pioneer Day on July 24th in honor of the Mormon pioneers that settled the Salt Lake Valley in the mid 1800s. Here, people dressed as pioneers pose after participating in the annual parade that makes its way through downtown Salt Lake City.
Every year, Utah celebrates Pioneer Day on July 24 in honor of the Mormon pioneers who settled the Salt Lake Valley in the mid-1800s. Above, people dressed as pioneers pose after participating in the annual parade that makes its way through downtown Salt Lake City.

Michael Friberg

Photographer Michael Friberg found himself living in Utah on and off for roughly five years and became fascinated by the two distinct cultures he found there.

“There are essentially two different versions of Utah,” Friberg wrote via email. “There is the semi-liberal progressive outdoorsy part of Salt Lake City that makes up the counterculture, and then there are the surrounding suburbs and small towns that end up being overwhelmingly Mormon. The two sort of exist without a ton of crossover. Obviously that's a large generalization, but it was at least my experience.”

Friberg grew up in the Bible Belt of West Texas and said that experience helped form his interest in the ways religion influence culture. “Even though evangelical Christians and Mormons are very different theologically, the cultures end up being surprisingly similar,” he said.

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Friberg has worked as an editorial photographer with a diverse portfolio, including series on rodeos, humane slaughterhouses, and mascots. Even with that background, Friberg said trying to tackle something as broad as Mormonism was tricky. “My biggest challenge that has continued to be a challenge has been finding interesting ways to shoot fairly bland subject matter and not falling into all of the normal stereotypes … I hadn't spent a ton of time photographing white people in the suburbs. It was and is definitely a challenge,” he said.

The entire project was shot in Utah, and Friberg is calling it “This Is the Place,” which are the words that 19th-century Mormon leader Brigham Young supposedly said when entering the Salt Lake Valley. Friberg said he was more interested in “the geography of Mormon culture rather than in Mormonism itself.”

A Mormon man sings hymns on the street in between sessions during LDS general conference in Salt Lake City in April 2012.
A Mormon man sings hymns on the street in between sessions during LDS General Conference in Salt Lake City in April 2012. Twice a year, the LDS church holds the conference, where more than 100,000 Mormons descend on Salt Lake City to hear teaching from leaders in the church and to learn doctrine from their church president, who they believe is a living prophet.

Michael Friberg

A truck drives around with a banner advertising a woman's singleness during LDS general conference in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah in April 2012. Marriage is incredibly important in the LDS church and for some single Mormon people who don't live in Utah, Conference is a great time to meet other young LDS people.
A truck drives around with a banner advertising a single woman's contact information during LDS General Conference in Salt Lake City in April 2012. Marriage is incredibly important in the LDS church, and for some single Mormons who don't live in Utah, the conference is a great time to meet other young Mormons.

Michael Friberg

Catherine Spruill, an African American Mormon, sits in front of her Ward in West Jordan, Utah. The LDS church has a complicated history with African Americans. Their doctrine did not allow black men to hold the priesthood until 1978.
Catherine Spruill, an African-American Mormon, sits in front of her ward in West Jordan, Utah. The LDS church has a complicated history with African-Americans. Their doctrine did not allow black men to hold the priesthood until 1978.

Michael Friberg

A Security Guard stands watch as men line up for the priesthood session at the LDS Conference Center during LDS General Conference in April 2012. Twice a year, the Mormon Church holds a "General Conference" where over 100,000 Mormons descend on Salt Lake City to hear teaching from leaders in the church and also to learn doctrine from their church president who they believe is a living prophet.
A security guard stands watch as men line up for the priesthood session at the LDS Conference Center during LDS General Conference in April 2012.

Michael Friberg

At first he wandered around taking pictures of people and events that piqued his interest, eventually landing editorial assignments that allowed him to focus deeper on different stories. He said he was surprised how “open everybody I have photographed or attempted to photograph has been.”

“I really expected more push back from Mormon people. Historically, the media has had a lot of fun at their expense, so I expected more trepidation, but I think a lot of them got what I was trying to do,” he said.

For now, Friberg said he has taken a break from the project to focus on other things, including a project on the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan with Benjamin Rasmussen; they plan to publish a tabloid-sized newspaper about their experiences in September.

But Friberg hasn’t decided if he’s done working on “This Is the Place.” “I haven't worked on the project in a while because I got burned out on the visuals and needed a break to get some fresh perspective,” he said. “I've shot all the photos of guys in ties that I can shoot and need to push beyond that.”

A sign indicating no use on Sunday at a sports field belonging to the LDS church in Provo, Utah. Provo is home to Brigham Young University and the population is around 90 percent Mormon.
A sign indicating no use on Sunday of a sports field belonging to the LDS church in Provo, Utah. Provo is home to Brigham Young University, and the city's population is approximately 90 percent Mormon.

Michael Friberg

White dress shirts for sale at the Missionary Mall in Orem, Utah. The missionary mall is a store set up specifically to supply outgoing Mormon missionaries with all the things they need for their two year Missions.
White dress shirts for sale at the Missionary Mall store in Orem, Utah. Missionary Mall is set up specifically to supply Mormon missionaries with all the things they need for their two-year missions.

Michael Friberg

Tourists walk around the top of Emigration Canyon in Utah. Brigham Young descended into the Salt Lake Valley through Emigration Canyon with an advance party in 1846. As the leader of the LDS church at the time, he declared that Utah would be the place they would settle. He was followed by 70,000 other Mormon pioneers who walked on foot, pulling hand carts, from the midwest.
Tourists walk around the top of Emigration Canyon in Utah. Brigham Young descended into the Salt Lake Valley through Emigration Canyon with an advance party in 1846. As the leader of the LDS church at the time, he declared that Utah would be the place they would settle. He was followed by 70,000 other Mormon pioneers who walked on foot, pulling hand carts, from the Midwest.

Michael Friberg

The LDS conference center in use during General Conference in October 2012. The building can hold 21,000 people at a time and is used by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir when not in use during conference.
The LDS Conference Center during General Conference in October 2012. The building can hold 21,000 people at a time and is used by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir when not in use during the conference.

Michael Friberg

A wedding party poses on the steps of the LDS Temple in Downtown Salt Lake City, Utah. Mormon wedding ceremonies are performed in a semi secret ceremony inside the Temple with only close Mormon family allowed to attend. Afterwards, the couples come out through a doorway at the temple and are greeted by the wedding parties and family and friends.
A wedding party poses on the steps of the LDS temple in Salt Lake City. Mormon wedding ceremonies are performed in a semisecret ceremony inside the temple with only Mormons allowed to attend. Afterward, the couple comes out through a doorway at the temple, and the newlyweds are greeted by the wedding party, family, and friends.

Michael Friberg

A picture of the most common representation of Jesus in the Mormon Church was stuck on top of a fire alarm at the Missionary Training Center where young men and women go to train for 3 months before leaving on their two year mission.
A picture of the most common representation of Jesus in the LDS church sits on top of a fire alarm at the Missionary Training Center, where young men and women go to train for three months before leaving on their two-year mission.

Michael Friberg

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