Mark Hedengren’s photography project The Mormons was a passion project set to dispel myths and misconceptions. He wanted to show LDS Church members as real people, not the victims of the media’s interpretation of them. Here, Mark shares why this was such an important undertaking for him and how his passion for photography has led him to live a more “abundant life.”
1)What initially drew you to photography as a passion and later a career?
The thing about photography that has always drawn me in is the process. It allows me to explore the world. There are a lot of mediums in art where you spend most of your life looking at an LCD screen (writer) or sitting in a room for long periods of time (painter/sculptor). I love the people I meet and the places I go with photography. That’s not to say working on a photograph project is like a vacation. It’s not. It’s actually extremely physical and hard work. It sounds all very exotic to be sleeping on the sidewalk in London because you can’t find your hotel or watching the rats run around the streets in Cambodia, but while it’s going on it just seems like something you need to do to get in a position to take the photograph. If you are focused on a goal, everything becomes secondary. That’s a good thing and a bad thing.
2)Why do you think The Mormons photo series is needed at this time in the world?
I wanted a book like The Mormons to exist and nobody else was making it. I would have been happy to just buy it at the bookstore, but as it is I had to spend years of my life getting it made. Most all depiction of Mormons falls into one of two camps—one a kind of plastic, unreal look, and the other look is one where a Mormon is stupid and/or evil. You see this caricature used in mainstream art a lot. Since Mormonism is a small religion with no direct racial connection, it’s seen as OK to attack it. If you were to do the same thing with Muslims, Catholics, Hindus, or Jews, you may be accused of being a racist. Mormonism is the safe religion to mock. Mormons need to be portrayed as natural, normal people as you find in documentary photography. If you don’t do that, you risk being dehumanized.
3)How can other people outside of our faith relate to this project?
The Mormons has been received much better outside of Mormonism than within. I think there is a lot of interest in Mormons, and people are curious. They know the plastic and evil/dumb versions of Mormons can’t be real. The reaction I’ve always had to my two Mormon projects by people who aren’t Mormon was one of elation. My mother, who was director of Writing Across the Curriculum at BYU, would always give a copy of The Mormons to the visiting professors she invited to come speak at the school. They all would read most every word of the book and comment on how much they liked it. That was my goal with The Mormons: a book that you could hand to an educated person outside the Church and they would find it interesting.
4)What do you hope viewers will walk away feeling or motivated to do?
I would like Mormons to feel that they are proud of who they are and what they do. We should be astonished and grateful that so many people work so hard in the Church for free. I would like to see more depictions of Mormons as regular people and a more international view of the Church. The only way to represent Mexico is to photograph in Mexico and do so with an open mind, being willing to accept the way they look and dress.
5)Was there a preconceived notion about LDS people that you were trying to dispel with this project?
I really just wanted to show Mormons as people. That’s all we are. All preconceptions fall away with the truth. Mormonism in many ways is one of the most normal religions around. I always invite people to attend a Mormon Church service, and they are surprised at how normal the whole thing is.
6)How was your faith strengthened or affected by creating this series?
I spent over five years working on The Mormons, and it’s safe to say that behind every photograph there is a story, so much that going through the photographs is a very emotional experience. I remember once reading W. Eugen Smith, a major photographer, that his children would hear him crying in the darkroom. At the time I thought that was kind of crazy, but now I can understand it. Photographing is such a primary emotional experience that encompasses all of you. When you are photographing, you rely on your subjects. They become your friends. The book is full of people I love and respect. I am always in awe of the little things people do to survive in life, from adopting the children of a dead family member in Cambodia to being an extra wonderful Primary president and becoming second mother to 50 children in Brooklyn.
It was a joy to meet and talk with so many wonderful members of the Church while making The Mormons. So many different backgrounds and experiences, but all found Mormonism to be a strength in their life, often for different reasons. In many ways, doing the interviews was one of my favorite parts of the book.