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Recently completing the second installment in the United States Tennis Association-Colorado’s Breaking the Barriers project series, photographer Barry Gutierrez related the complexities that occurred behind-the-scenes of this powerful storytelling endeavor. Coming from a Hispanic background, Gutierrez first approached the project’s specific ethnic theme by establishing a common ground based on his own experiences and ties to the Asian community: “I reflected on what the Asian culture meant to me and what my experience within the community has been. I proposed to my wife in Thailand on the back of an elephant so we have a little piece of our heart in Thailand. I also took karate for six years, so I learned about Japanese culture from that and my brother married someone from the Philippines. My friends are also from different Asian countries.” After forging a personal connection, Gutierrez brainstormed tools to unify the various Asian ethnicities he would work with during the exhibit, settling on a natural motif as a reference to a shared Asian belief in the physical elements: “There are so many religions, cultures and societies within Asia, so I went back to ancient times when there was more similarity in the understanding of nature’s composition, particularly regarding the basic elements of fire, water, earth and air. These four elements were communally acknowledged in predominant Asian philosophy.” In addition to its practical purpose of bringing the subjects together, the motif enhanced the

artworks’ aesthetics, serving a dual function for the viewer by organizing the photos into both a visually comprehensive and vibrant collection. Most importantly, however, asking the subjects to physically immerse themselves in the elements during photo shoots-diving underwater, posing among flames, coating their skin with mud and soaring through the air-coaxed them from their own comfort zones, prompting spontaneous reactions that enriched the portraits’ genuineness. “I took them out of their [tennis court] element which drew out their personalities,” explained Gutierrez. In contrast to the first Breaking the Barriers exhibit, which focused on the African-American community and featured a modest number of 15 subjects in 14 photos, the Asian Experience gathered nearly 30 individuals, including two families, within 13 portraits. Despite the smiles and the portraits’ largerthan-life energy however, Gutierrez brings viewers down to reality by reminding them of the sober truth surrounding the struggle against institutionalized prejudice-a struggle that motivated the need to honor its brave and successful heroes. “Because it’s a celebration there certainly were some happy pictures but at the same time, I wanted some serious portraits because breaking the barriers isn’t always fun-encountering racism and people who don’t understand you-so capturing someone in a serious tone as a whole gives weight to the project, appropriately commemorating a somber time in U.S. history.”

elements of fire, water, earth and air

Breaking the Barriers 2.0 | asian avenue magazine

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Asian Avenue magazine - May 2014  

Cover: Asian American Heroes of Colorado