Photographing The Emotions Of Aurora

Talking with photographer Barry Gutierrez felt like a therapy session. I got teary. He got teary. And we both felt better at the end of the call.

Gutierrez was one of the first photojournalists at Gateway High School after the shootings in Aurora, Colo. — a difficult job where he documented people during the worst moments of their lives. While the media is often vilified for being intrusive, Gutierrez strove for intimacy in telling the story of real people, in real pain.

Tom Sullivan embraces family members outside Gateway High School in Aurora, Colo., on July 21. He had been searching for his son Alex,  who celebrated his 27th birthday by going to see the new Batman movie at the theater where a gunman opened fire. i i

Tom Sullivan embraces family members outside Gateway High School in Aurora, Colo., on July 21. He had been searching for his son Alex, who celebrated his 27th birthday by going to see the new Batman movie at the theater where a gunman opened fire. Barry Gutierrez/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Barry Gutierrez/AP
Tom Sullivan embraces family members outside Gateway High School in Aurora, Colo., on July 21. He had been searching for his son Alex,  who celebrated his 27th birthday by going to see the new Batman movie at the theater where a gunman opened fire.

Tom Sullivan embraces family members outside Gateway High School in Aurora, Colo., on July 21. He had been searching for his son Alex, who celebrated his 27th birthday by going to see the new Batman movie at the theater where a gunman opened fire.

Barry Gutierrez/AP

These emotions were captured profoundly in the image above, which graced the front page of 97 U.S. newspapers the day after the shooting. The picture shows Tom Sullivan crying and hugging two family members outside the high school. At the time he was searching for his son, Alex. He later held Alex's photo up to news cameras and begged the media for help.

"He started belting out 'Where is my son? Have you seen my son? I can't find my son,' " said Gutierrez. "My bones started to shake and rattle, I started to cry. And I felt so horrible — as a journalist you know that he's probably not coming home."

Alex Sullivan was killed inside the theater while celebrating his 27th birthday.

  • Tom Sullivan holds a picture of his son, Alex Sullivan, as he pleads with the media to help find him on July 20. Alex had gone to see a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises at the Aurora, Colo., theater where a shooter opened fire, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others.
    Hide caption
    Tom Sullivan holds a picture of his son, Alex Sullivan, as he pleads with the media to help find him on July 20. Alex had gone to see a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises at the Aurora, Colo., theater where a shooter opened fire, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others.
    Barry Gutierrez/AP
  • Isaiah Bow hugs his mother, Shamecca Davis, after being questioned by police outside Gateway High School where he and other witnesses were brought after the shooting. After leaving the theater Bow went back in to find his girlfriend. "I didn't want to leave her in there. But she's OK now," Bow said.
    Hide caption
    Isaiah Bow hugs his mother, Shamecca Davis, after being questioned by police outside Gateway High School where he and other witnesses were brought after the shooting. After leaving the theater Bow went back in to find his girlfriend. "I didn't want to leave her in there. But she's OK now," Bow said.
    Barry Gutierrez/AP
  • A woman is overcome with emotion while surrounded by counselors, police and clergy outside the high school.
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    A woman is overcome with emotion while surrounded by counselors, police and clergy outside the high school.
    Barry Gutierrez/AP
  • Emma Goos, 19, hugs her mother, Judy Goos, outside the high school. Emma was in the third row of the theater when the shooter entered. She helped apply pressure to an injured man's head.
    Hide caption
    Emma Goos, 19, hugs her mother, Judy Goos, outside the high school. Emma was in the third row of the theater when the shooter entered. She helped apply pressure to an injured man's head.
    Barry Gutierrez/AP
  • Lin Gan, 20, who was in the theater when the shooting took place, remains emotionally shaken eight hours later.
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    Lin Gan, 20, who was in the theater when the shooting took place, remains emotionally shaken eight hours later.
    Barry Gutierrez/AP
  • Eyewitness Jacob Stevens, 18, hugs his mother, Tammi Stevens, after being interviewed by police.
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    Eyewitness Jacob Stevens, 18, hugs his mother, Tammi Stevens, after being interviewed by police.
    Barry Gutierrez/AP
  • From left, Tylecia Amos, 14, Shatyra Amos, 15, Michael Walker, 17, and Mykia Walker, 16, carry flowers to a makeshift memorial across the street from the Century Theater parking lot on July 21. Walker was a classmate of AJ Boik, who was killed in the shooting.
    Hide caption
    From left, Tylecia Amos, 14, Shatyra Amos, 15, Michael Walker, 17, and Mykia Walker, 16, carry flowers to a makeshift memorial across the street from the Century Theater parking lot on July 21. Walker was a classmate of AJ Boik, who was killed in the shooting.
    Barry Gutierrez/AP
  • Thousands gather during a vigil for the shooting victims at the Aurora Municipal Center on July 22.
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    Thousands gather during a vigil for the shooting victims at the Aurora Municipal Center on July 22.
    Barry Gutierrez/AP
  • Gail Stevens (left) comforts Judy Goos at the Grant Avenue United Methodist Church in Aurora on July 22. Goos' daughter Emma was inside the theater during the shooting. She called her mother, who quickly arrived on the scene to help her daughter and other friends.
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    Gail Stevens (left) comforts Judy Goos at the Grant Avenue United Methodist Church in Aurora on July 22. Goos' daughter Emma was inside the theater during the shooting. She called her mother, who quickly arrived on the scene to help her daughter and other friends.
    Barry Gutierrez/AP

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Gutierrez — a veteran photojournalist who spent 10 years at the Rocky Mountain News — is no stranger to covering disasters. Plane crashes, tornadoes and post-Columbine stories have shaped his ability to cover tragedy both as a professional and as a sympathetic fellow human being.

"All I could think about was 'Where's my son?' " said Gutierrez, who has a 2-year old boy. "I was so anxious to get home and hug [him]."

"I cried many, many times the first day. I was making pictures of very emotional moments."

Barry Gutierrez photographed families in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., shooting.

Barry Gutierrez photographed families in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., shooting. Courtesy of Barry Gutierrez hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Barry Gutierrez

Because Gutierrez was at the high school early, he was able to get close to family members before police cordoned off the area. He said this allowed him to connect with people on a personal level, and that most people were very open and kind.

"As a human being, I simply felt their emotion through every picture. My heart is with them. They are my neighbors. I'm telling their stories to the world."

Gutierrez continued to cover the story for the next few days for The Associated Press. After a few days, he said, he was emotionally exhausted and needed to step back. But the people he photographed stick with him.

"I hope someday I get to meet Tom Sullivan and look him in the eye and talk about the picture I shot of him," he said. "I have his phone number and will call, someday, to see if he wants to meet for coffee."

Barry Gutierrez is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist based in Denver.

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