Authorities are investigating the theft of photos from Salt Lake Community College that are part of a controversial exhibit that depicts gay LDS missionaries.

An administrator discovered the pictures were missing about 8:30 a.m. Thursday and contacted the college's administrative offices, SLCC spokesman Joy Tlou said. Three prints were removed and the frames left hanging empty in the display.

"We are distressed that somebody has removed the photographs from the exhibit, and we are doing everything we possibly can to cooperate with the the Department of Public Safety at Salt Lake Community College to resolve the situation," Tlou said.

DPS Lt. Doug McCleve said officers were investigating the theft as they would any other crime, talking with possible witnesses and others who may have been in the area of the exhibit either Wednesday evening or Thursday morning.

"Fortunately for us, we don't have to get caught up in any of the philosophical discussions," McCleve said of the pictures, which have provoked considerable discussion and media attention. "We are treating this as a theft investigation, and if we can determine who it was that took the photos, we'll conduct the appropriate investigation."

The photographer, Don Farmer, suspects the theft is an anti-gay statement. If someone took the photos because they wanted to hang them in their house, they would have stolen the frames, too, he said.

Farmer shot and developed the photos as part of a graduation project two years ago from Westminster College of Salt Lake City. SLCC's gay-straight alliance later asked him for art as part of a diversity week exhibit, and Farmer gave them five photos.

The photos that were stolen contained LDS symbols such as the Book of Mormon, garments and name tags identifying men as missionaries for the church. "For me, the ones that were more suggestive were left," he said.

"In a state without hate crime laws, this would be a hate crime because it's (based) on sexuality and faith. That's pretty serious," Farmer said.

"I guess that my fear is that they are destroyed. Those are the originals," he said.

Students were surprised about the theft.

"I'd say it's just a stupid prank," English student Chris Haney said. "It's just a shame people can't allow (people) to express themselves freely as long as they don't bother other people, as long as they don't say, 'Hey, you have to be this way.' "

Student Denise Voisin said the photography was provoking. But that's the point of art, she said.

"When you make art, you want to get some different responses. If you make art, it's your opinion," she said.