As far as eccentric stories go, my two day experience with the Mormon Young Ambassadors would come close to the top of my list.
The Young Ambassadors are a touring broadway-style musical theatre group from Bringham Young University, the main centre of Mormon post-secondary education, located in Utah. I initially approached public relations personnel from the church about the possibility of doing a documentary feature on the lives of Mormon missionaries living in Cambodia, and while they agreed to give me access, they also asked if I would be interested in tailing the Young Ambassadors during their two-day visit to Cambodia.
Not being in any way affiliated with the LDS church, and being a non-religious person by nature and upbringing, I was skeptical at first. While I have no objections to the spiritual beliefs of any person, I didn’t want to be used as an advertising photographer in a campaign to convert Cambodians to a foreign religion. There are many faith-based organizations around the world that have a positive social impact on the people they work with, and my doubts were not based on any sort of anti-Christian sentiments, but rather an unease at compromising my status as a journalist by inadvertently endorsing a religion to which I do not belong.
After meeting with the local representatives of the church, however, I was reassured by their surprising openness. They explained that I would be brought along for documentary purposes only, and that I was free to shoot whatever I saw, whether good or bad. They didn’t suggest any angles for me to follow, they did not want ownership of the images, and they guaranteed not to censor me in any way. The pictures I took would be mine to do with as I pleased, and I was free to distribute the story to any media outlet I wanted with any slant I chose, so long as I wasn’t manipulating the truth. Even when we discussed the possibility that I could hypothetically come away with pictures that were harmful to the church’s image, they held the position that they would not try to stop me from disseminating them.
These promises were kept, and in the end it was a fun story to work on. Over two days I followed the Young Ambassadors – most of whom had never been to an Asian country – as they toured Cambodia’s genocide museums and markets before performing for several thousand people in Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich Theatre.
For me the story turned out to be entirely disassociated from religion. No one tried to convert me or draw me into religious discussions. Instead I was left to present the experience for what it was – a group of young performers visiting a foreign country for the first time.
Though I doubt stories like this will become a regular theme of my work, it was a quirky and ultimately fun departure from my normal routine – something I think is important every once in a while to avoid becoming stagnant. And beyond that, they put on a good show.