We Are Family
We Are Family examines the acceptance of violence and recovery process a community goes through after a mass shooting in America. It aims to bring an understanding of a community overwhelmed by grief, address the idea of what Americans have accepted as normal in our culture and elevate consciousness about this damaging legacy we are leaving future generations.
We Are Family
In the wake of the June 2016 massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the deadliest mass shooting in American history, "We Are Family" examines the acceptance of violence and recovery process a community goes through after a mass shooting in America. It aims to create an understanding of a community overwhelmed by grief, address the idea of what Americans have accepted as normal in our culture and elevate consciousness about the damaging legacy we are leaving future generations.
Diffusion: Cardiff International Festival of Photography Monday, May 1, 2017 – Wednesday, May 31, 2017 Cardiff, UK
Southeastern Museum of Photography July 2017 – September 2017 Daytona Beach, Florida
UCF Art Gallery: Resilience: Remembering Pulse Thursday, June 8, 2017 – Friday, June 30, 2017 Orlando, Florida
Newlyweds JT and Jenica Karol
(L) JT, 32, and Jenica Karol, 34, currently live in Cummings, Georgia and met at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida on October 3, 2007. Nine years later, they married in JT’s hometown of Navarre Beach in northern Florida on June 26, 2016, two weeks after the Pulse massacre.
Brandon Wolf grew up in a suburb of Portland, Ore., and has lived in Orlando since 2008. He went to Pulse that night with three friends — Eric Borrero, Christopher "Drew" Leinonen and Juan Guerrero.
"I think the most challenging moment, for me, was when it struck me ... that Drew and Juan didn't come out of this...I had been so strong until that moment. I was leading us out and we had to go, and I was making decisions."
That's when Brandon fell on the sidewalk. He couldn't carry himself anymore. But Eric pushed him, saying, 'No we've got to go. We've got to move. We've got to move."
Still, Brandon couldn't move.
Raelynn and Nay
Raelynn Dittrich, 25, cuts Nay Burton’s, 29, hair in the kitchen of their Orlando, Florida home; they met in 2013 while both working at Publix Supermarket. In the wake of the Pulse massacre, Nay, a customer service staff at Publix, was helping bag when a customer asked her if she was "family". She said yes, and he gave her a hug. The cashier didn't understand the question so Nay explained "in the gay community, “family” is used to connect with each other, to let each other know “hey we're the same and we're in this together. We've been through similar things.”
Downtown Orlando at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
(Center) National Rifle Association holds the 23rd Annual Central Florida Friends of NRA Dinner, Games & Auctions Event at Rosen Centre Hotel on July 16, 2016, one month after the Pulse Nightclub massacre. The website describes it as “A gathering of like-minded people.”
Paintings seen outside Zebra Coalition
Siblings Elyse and Arturo Ugalde
(L) Elyse Ugalde and her brother Arturo Ugalde are first-generation Cuban-Americans. Elyse first became an advocate for the LGBT community when she witnessed people openly expressing hate for a group of people for the first time in high school after moving from Miami to Orlando in 2002.
"You as a person standing up to someone get treated like you're the one who's caused a problem or you're the one creating a hostile environment for the students", says Elyse.
Rev. Terri Steed
Rev. Terri Steed moved to Orlando in 2012 to take the pulpit of Joy Metropolitan Community Church. When a pastor reached out to her after the Pulse shooting, asking for a conversation, the Charlotte, N.C., native agreed.
"Jesus went to those on the margins. Jesus went, he said he came to preach to the poor, to reach the outcasts, to set the oppressed free. Who is the most oppressed people? Come on, that's who he came to set free. He spoke to women when men didn't speak to women in public. When Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans. He talks to a woman at a well. Nobody else would have done that. Jesus did this, he modeled the behavior that we're still seeking you know. We have so much work to do, but it at least got, this time at least got the conversation started. That's all i can ask for."
Machine Gun America: Orlando’s Automatic Adrenaline Attraction
Shane Young and mother Trish Glad
"I feel like society shoves you in the closet," he says. "The moment you want to come out, you're going to be shoved ... back in the closet ... I had open arms to come home to. I didn't ever deal with the hate at home, but I can't imagine how it would be to have hate wherever you went."
Christopher Cuevas, 24, is one of the co-founders and lead organizers of QLatinx, an organization founded by LGBTQ+ and Latinx community members after the Pulse murders. Latinx is a gender-neutral way of using the words Latino or Latina, since there are individuals who don't conform to gender norms.
"Members in our group are survivors, or have lost loved ones, friends and family, and in the immediate, they felt like they needed somewhere to go, and they needed to heal, and many of them don't have family here," Chris says. "Latinx communities exist in pockets all over the place. We've never had a space dedicated entirely to us, for us, by us, and so in lieu of that Latin Night, or Noche Latina, was really the only place that we could ever go and see other brown and black bodies that make up the Latinx community. With that no longer available, with that gone, it's a challenge. So we felt like we needed to convene that community together. We needed to bring the people that exist in the diaspora together."
Brittany Sted is co-founder of The Dru Project, an organization created in memory of Christopher "Drew" Leinonen. The project's mission is to create gay-straight alliances in schools and provide support for existing ones.
Brittany and other friends felt they didn't want Drew's death to just happen, they "needed something to come from it," she says.
Drew helped make them into a little family along the way, so his close friends got together and decided to honor him by starting a nonprofit that built on work he had done in high school, where he started a gay-straight alliance.
"We decided we wanted to work on saving his legacy, preserving it, by promoting gay-straight alliances, whether that's in public schools — like in middle schools and high schools — or even just out in the community, helping to have people understand we can't have all this hate and this bigotry and this not understanding and accepting one another," says Brittany, who is a licensed mental health counselor. "That's something really big he accomplished in high school and continued throughout his life.
Emily Addison and her 2-year-old son, Diyari, lost Deonka "Dee Dee" Drayton in the Pulse massacre.
Emily and Dee Dee started dating in 2009, but were separated at the time Dee Dee was killed.
The night of the massacre Dee Dee texted Emily, but her phone was set to silent so she didn't receive the texts until the next morning.
Because the two weren't married, Emily has no rights regarding Dee Dee. She even had to push to get information about Dee Dee's funeral.
A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability.
Kaidy and Anisha Ellis
(L)Kaidy Ellis, from Jamaica, and Anisha Ellis Thomas, from Saint Thomas Island have been living in Orlando for over 15 years each. They have been married for 5 years, both come from cultures where same-sex relationships are stigmatized.
“Growing up in Jamaica you couldn't have been out. It‘d probably be difficult to this day,” says Anisha. “It‘s built into the culture. That‘s what it should be: Man, woman. And men are the pinnacles of everything. Women are supposed to be home, taking care of the kids.”
In Jamaica, same-sex relationship is not just taboo. “There are actual laws against buggery,” says Anisha.
For Anisha though, it wasn’t as difficult since her family knew she was gay before she knew herself.
“I didn't really identify what I was feeling because I didn't see it in my everyday life,” she says.
It wasn’t until she came to the University of Central Florida and met others like her that she realized she was gay.
Ida and Anna Vishkaee Eskamani
Twins Ida Vishkaee Eskamani (left) and Anna Vishkaee Eskamani grew up in the Central Florida area and attended the University of Central Florida. They hold positions at local nonprofits, which put them into action in the aftermath of the Pulse massacre — Anna as the senior director of public affairs and field operations for Planned Parenthood, and Ida as Equality Florida's development officer. The 26-year-old sisters tag-teamed a megaphone during the Aug. 11 "Rally to End Hate #ForThe49," leading a crowd to chant "Hey hey, ho ho, homophobia has got to go!"
Ida started the GoFundMe for Pulse Victims, which had received more than $7.5 million in donations from nearly 120,000 people from 120 countries in November. Her initial goal was "a modest goal of $100,000," but within hours they had met that goal, she says, and so they kept increasing it.
Local Artists Alexandra Sarton, Alberto Blanco and Blue
Alexandra Sarton and her band Chakra Khan had a debut album release party at The Venue in Orlando, Fla., on June 12. One of the songs she performed for the first time that night — the same night as the shooting massacre — was called "Pulse," a piece that she says is about how we "cover up our feelings."
"Us being dishonest with ourselves about how we feel in the day to day," the 37-year-old explains. "Which then leads to us not necessarily accepting ourselves, which then leads to us not accepting others, and then leads to us not accepting whole groups of people. Then leads to us feeling anger toward an external source when it all really started on the inside. That's exactly what Pulse is about."
Twenty-five-year-old Alberto Blanco was born in Spain and has been a member of the Orlando Ballet since 2012. The mass shooting at Pulse made him fearful, he says.
Blue is a well-known figure in the LGBT community of Orlando and owner of The Venue, the performing arts facility where Chakra Khan performed the night of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
Blue worked with the Hope and Help Center of Central Florida, and The Center, as a secondary responder.
"Our main focus was to kind of get set up for the week that we knew was ahead of us," Blue says.
But Blue doesn't think much could have been done to stop what happened.
"You can talk about gun control and you can talk about raising people with love and you can talk about ways that you would've changed upbringing ... the world is a crazy place," she says. "If I sat here and thought about all the ways that we could've prevented that I would probably be sitting here and speaking for hours. The fact of the matter is we have to look at what we've gotten from it and move forward with that."
Billy Manes and Tony Mauss
(R) Billy Manes, editor and chief of Watermark, central Florida‘s LGBTQ publication, which covers everything from Space Coast to St. Pete and all areas in between, and his partner Tony Mauss. “I‘ve always been afraid to walk out the front door and that‘s what makes me walk out the front door. I know that I‘m a target. I know that by going on MSNBC, you‘re going on international television. I know that some random jerk could come do this or some group put a burning cross in front of my house or a burning pink triangle,” says Billy about the work he does. He believes there is strength in numbers and the value of allies from other movements such as Black Lives Matter and Freedom Fighters. “It‘s pretty inspiring to see all of us picking up the slack for each other.” “We need to get to the point where it‘s not just tolerance. It‘s acceptance,” says Tony, who came to an unsettling realization after the shooting, “all of those things you thought you’ve overcome—you‘ve worked twice as hard to make it to a point where your friend group is supportive and then you‘ve built a family, if your family isn‘t supportive—you‘ve done the emotional work so that as an adult you feel like a full member of at least your personal community. And then Pulse happens and you recognize, oh wait maybe not. Have we just gone so insular?”
Juan Guerrero's Family
Aryam Guerrero, Mayra Guerrero, Juan Ramon and Celia Ruiz lost their youngest son and brother, Juan Guerrero, that night.
"My kids go to Catholic school," Celia says. "My daughter knows about her uncle and she didn't have a problem. We haven't talked to my son. He's 8."
Celia felt that following up a discussion about her brother's death with a conversation about his sexuality was too much.
"You just lost your uncle, now let's talk about this," she says. "Even before that, I felt like he was too young to have that conversation. I feel the Catholic community has become more open about it, especially since the new pope."
The pope's influence along with schools allowing or being more positive about kids showing their identities has helped with acceptance, Celia says, but acceptance begins at home.
"I think it comes from the family," she continues. "We can talk about what the schools are doing and what the church is doing, but it comes from the family. It's the way that you raise your kids. If you raise your kids to think that it's wrong to be gay, then your child is going to have a tough teenager life trying to share that with you. Even afterwards, it's going to be tough because you probably will more than likely be the parent that shuns your son out. It comes from the house, I think.
(center) A Donald Trump Campaign office opens across the street from Pulse Nightclub two months after the massacre.
(Images on the Left and Right) Rally to End Hate event description: “Exactly two months after the Pulse Nightclub massacre, presidential candidate Donald Trump, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio will headline a conference hosted by notorious anti-LGBTQ extremists in Orlando. The conference dubbed “Rediscovering God in America” is hosted by the American Renewal Project — a group whose leader likened gay people to Nazis and called on Christians to “risk martyrdom” to block gays from marrying!”
Mayor Buddy Dyer
"The 12th of June was the darkest day in our history, but I couldn't be more proud of our community at this point because of the way we have rallied and responded at this point — not being defined by the act of the gunman but being defined by how we have responded. And I would say that's with love, that's with compassion and unity for the victims — for the families but [also] for the community as a whole," says Buddy Dyer, who has been the mayor of Orlando for 13 years. "Because in addition to the victims that were in the Pulse nightclub, I think there is a wound on the entire community."
At a recent Sunday service Dyer attended, a pastor new to the community said, "God has appointed Orlando and its citizens with a light to fight hatred and to show the world how to embrace equality and fairness," and Dyer thinks that's a role his community now has because of the Pulse tragedy.
Jason Lindsay is executive director of the PRIDE Fund to End Gun Violence, a new political action committee he formed in the wake of the Pulse massacre and other mass shootings and gun violence.
"Orlando was the flashpoint, but it had been a passion of mine for quite some time wanting to create change," says Jason, who was a congressional relations officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs before launching his PAC.
When he saw Christine Leinonen pleading on the news trying to find out whether her son Drew was alive or not, Jason was moved.
"She had a passionate plea of, 'Why can't someone do something about the assault weapons?' " he says. "I couldn't sleep for a couple of days because of the attack anyway. Just her words resonated so clearly of what can I do as an individual to try and help create change? There was a unique opportunity to really engage the LGBTQ community and get us involved in reducing gun violence. I determined that starting a political action committee would be one of the most effective ways to create change."
Jason wants to organize the LBGT+ community and its allies to move on the issue of common sense gun reform.
"By mobilizing them we can do two things," he explains. "One, we can get them more actively involved in the political process. In regards to elections and then holding elected officials accountable and making sure that they vote for common sense gun reform."
The second effort is directly raising money for political candidates at the federal level.
"Hopefully, [at the] state level down the road as we expand, but raising money for candidates who meet our policy objectives, which includes common sense gun reform," he says.
Drew's Mother, Christine Leinonen
Christine Leinonen sits in a spare room which now stores Drew's belongings, she lost her only son on June 12.
"It was horrible; it was horrific," she says. "It was, it's still incomprehensible. I still can't deal with it mentally. I have to make it a nonevent because when I do deal with it, the reality is that, 'Yes, my son was slaughtered.' "
Christine suffers from insomnia and wakes up many nights at 3 a.m. That night she signed on to Facebook and saw that Brandon had posted about the shooting at Pulse.
"From that moment on I got into a denial. I thought for sure Christopher wasn't there, so I texted Christopher. I said, 'Chris, are you OK?' Then I Facebook messaged Brandon. I said, 'Was Christopher with you?' He said, 'Yes.' I'm still thinking in my head, 'My brain is not thinking.' "
But as she got more details, Christine knew that her son was one of those killed.
"I knew the reality was that Christopher was murdered, slaughtered, had to have been hit multiple times, just from everything I was hearing," she says. "Because once Brandon told me that Christopher was with him and that he didn't know where Christopher was, I got in my car, I said, 'Where are you?' "
Christine drove down to the 7-Eleven where Brandon and Eric had ended up, and JP Cortes was there, too, He had gone to meet his friends because he was worried. Brandon explained to her what happened and where her son was in the nightclub. But still, her brain could not process the information.
"It's like I have two brains: one that's logical that I'll deal with the evidence and it's likely he's dead, and the other one that is so hard to get to and so traumatic to put any information into that part of my brain," she says. "Even now I just can only deal with it in very small slivers. It's just too painful. I can deal with the evidence of it logically."
Christine said that hearing that Juan had been taken out on a stretcher gave her hope that Drew might have made it out, too. "I was clinging onto that for that entire morning."
She stood by the emergency room waiting for three hours.
Imam Abdurrahman Sykes
For 18 years, Imam Abdurrahman Sykes, worked as a chaplain in a correctional setting. After taking early retirement and going back to school for a Masters in Social Work and a certificate in Marriage and Family, he now focuses on counseling.
He is the chairman of the Orange County Domestic Violence Task Force, and the former co-facilitator for the LGBTQ group at UCF. He has also worked with Aspire in the children’s unit.
“I just like building humans, empowering humans, helping them to differentiate, individuate, become, resuscitate that inner child that gets destroyed by the environment and sometimes by ignorance,” says Sykes, “I have a strong belief that everybody, if they could just reactivate and resuscitate the inner child, they'd be happy uninhibited individuals, less judgmental and have a very positive effect on the world.”
“There are many different ideas out there about why Omar did this, what is your take on it?” I asked him.
“I hate the word ‘Islamic terrorists‘, because when other terrorists do things we don‘t say ‘Christian terrorists‘, we don‘t say ‘Mormon terrorists‘, we don‘t say ‘Catholic terrorists’”says Sykes, “If I go out and go postal today, it‘s going to say local, radical Muslim cleric imam. This is a microaggression that‘s going on. Islamophobia is a huge business. The war on terror is a huge business.”
Angelica and Charlotte
Angelica Brown (L) and Charlotte Davis were two of the ten people arrested during a sit-in at Senator Marco Rubio’s Orlando office on Monday, July 11th. A month after the Pulse massacre and in response to Senator Rubio's actions, the 70 protesters demanded legislation for gun control, LGBTQ protections and safer communities of color. They had planned to sit for 49 hours in honor of the 49 victims, but their goal was cut short after the owner of the private building ordered them out by 7pm that evening. After a group of ten refused to leave they were arrested while singing “This Little Light of Mine.”
After living in Orlando for almost 14 years, Charlotte had moved back to Miami a few days before the shooting—she was still searching for an apartment on June 12th.
“Three apartments in, I just busted out and started crying,” she recalls. Her friend offered to drive her to Orlando. She knocked on Angelica’s door.
“I don‘t know why I am here, I don‘t know what I came here to do, but we got to do something,” she said to Angelica.
They have been “kind of like Frick & Frack” since then.
“As soon as this lady knocked on my door, I knew it was time to work. I knew it was time to get out in the trenches, and figure out what it is that we can do to heal this community and make it better and safe again,” says Angelica, “We have been on Go as far as rallies and sitting in, and just a whole bunch of positive, and prosperous things.”
2007-2010 Orlando and Daytona Beach, Florida