Opinion

The Young Men of a New West

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Guest Essay

The Young Men of a New West

Sept. 23, 2023, 7:00 a.m. ET
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Several years into photographing the unorthodox residential architecture of members of the F.L.D.S. along the Arizona-Utah border, I crossed paths with an 18-year-old former F.L.D.S. member named Jobee Cooke.

Before meeting him, Short Creek was all but impenetrable to me. When I arrived for the first time in 2014, the F.L.D.S. still had a stronghold on the community, and I was tailed by trucks with tinted blackout windows. Even a few years later, the dominance of the F.L.D.S. in various Utah and Arizona municipalities was severely weakened. After Mr. Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison, the atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion that I first encountered was tempered. And the young men whom Mr. Jeffs had once banished from the homes of his followers were now visible.

Jobee is one of a tight-knit group of teenagers and young men navigating life after the F.L.D.S. In a polygamous cult, young men are often expendable. Jobee, like so many other young men living in the Crick, didn’t get a traditional education but instead mastered skills of horsemanship and survival. Meeting him became my way of understanding the community, just at the time he was working to find a place for himself in the world.

Jobee offered to introduce me to the other boys, who, in their role of modern-day cowboys, explored the rugged terrain of southern Utah, northern Arizona and southern Nevada on horseback, shooting guns and dressing up like old-time explorers of the Western frontier. Seemingly unaware of the backdrop of trauma inflicted by colonial expansion on their Indigenous neighbors, the Paiute Indian Tribe, Jobee and his friends use role-playing to express their newfound freedom and to cope with their rejection by the church. In both their real and imaginary lives, they have gained a knowledge of and closeness to nature that has been lost in the conventions of modern life.

I was originally drawn to the boys’ houses, with their unusual add-ons and missing siding. Surrounded by tall fences and mirrored windows, these compounds represent the occupants’ distrust of the outside world and their bent for self-governance. Their homes are a reminder of the reclusive world they came from and a counterpoint to their current autonomy.

The subjects of these photographs inhabit a unique space in the desert expanses and open skies of the American West, suspended between hell and paradise. I hope that these photographs offer a bridge between our world and theirs.

Jim Mangan is a 2023 Light Work artist-in-Residence who resides in Los Angeles, after spending 24 years in the mountains of Colorado and Utah. His book, “The Crick,” is forthcoming.

Judith Freeman is a novelist and nonfiction writer who lives in Idaho and Los Angeles. Her newest project, a collaboration with the photographer Tina Barney, will be published next year.

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