In an age when the mantra of "tolerance" is invoked so often that it has evolved into a kind of secular 11th Commandment, the notion of overt, unapologetic intolerance -- of others' beliefs, behaviors, rituals -- can sometimes feel like the last taboo. But in that strange, charged environment where tolerance and intolerance intersect, a photographer can sometimes find moments of astonishing, unexpected revelation.
It is an environment inhabited -- defiantly, gladly -- by The Westboro Baptist Church.
The profoundly controversial ministry is located in rural Topeka, Kansas, and was founded in 1956 by Pastor Fred Phelps, 81, a former civil rights attorney and a man John F. Kennedy Jr.'s George magazine once included in a list of the "Twenty Most Fascinating Men in Politics." Infamous for the incendiary picket signs members wield at seemingly every high-profile funeral in the United States (God Hates Fags. Thank God for 9/11. Thank God for Dead Soldiers.), the church might well be the most despised congregation in America.
Documenting Westboro in my photographs is, in a sense, a deeply personal endeavor. The controversy surrounding their actions was, in all honesty, random noise to me until the day I found myself inside the Westboro compound in Topeka, at the home of Pastor Phelps' daughter, Shirley. With a shock, I noticed a picket sign praising God's creation of IEDs and (in the Phelps' eyes) their blessed role in the death of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, killed in Iraq in 2006. As a proud former Marine, with a son who currently serves, I was stunned by the church's glib celebration of the death of one of my military brothers. At the very same time, I resolved to document the church members and their beliefs -- beliefs so utterly alien to and at odds with my own.
Aside from the questionable scriptural interpretation and faith-based sexual intolerance for which Westboro is so notorious, the project forced me to question my own values and personal credos. Do I, in fact or only in theory, stand for those principles I originally joined the Marines to defend: the ideals of freedom of speech and the right to protest -- even if that protest questions the worth and patriotism of my own son? Would I be able to document these people fairly, or would I subconsciously veer toward portraying them in a wholly negative light? Ultimately, my aim and purpose with this project was not only to put a face on a marginalized and (in large part) reviled religious group, but also to explore as honestly as possible their humanity -- no matter how hateful and abhorrent they might appear to those of us on the outside.
In this photo: Members of Westboro Baptist Church start to arrive for Sunday service. Topeka, Kansas.