Uvalde school photographers' pictures bring children and tragedy into full focus

·5 min read

UVALDE, Texas – Nancy Sutton spreads out the photographs of the girl she knew so well: Ellie Garcia in first grade. Ellie in her basketball uniform. Ellie, smiling, a white bow in her hair.

Sutton, a professional school portrait photographer, has taken photos of every child killed at Robb Elementary School on Tuesday, along with the two teachers. In fact she has taken pictures of virtually every student who has attended classes at Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District for the past 20 years.

Since Tuesday, the Suttons' pictures of the dead have been published on newspaper front pages and on TV, and rocketed around the world via social media, providing a lens to the country's worst mass shootings and the means by which the world could put faces to the names of the dead.

“Look at them, just babies,” she says of the photos before her. “Just babies. So young.”

Click after click after click, Sutton, 59, and her husband and their Nikon cameras captured the smiles, the awkwardness, the growth from child to teen to adult. They’ve fixed hair and straightened ties and offered reassurances year after year, class after class.

"You look so pretty," the Suttons have told generations of kids. "You’re so handsome, I like your shirt."

Nancy Sutton still remembers school picture day when she was a student in Uvalde, some 50 years ago, the nervousness of picking an outfit, trying to decide whether to wear her hair up or back, brushing her teeth one more time so they shined extra bright.

The Suttons themselves now have that impact on the kids they've photographed, who recognize them in the HEB grocery store or Walmart, who run up unabashedly to say "You took my picture – do you remember me?"

Nancy Sutton always tells them she does.

"They remember you and we always say yes, we do remember them," she says with a wistful smile. "Every child should be remembered. Even if I don't actually."

The tradition of school photographs is so strong in Uvalde that children the Suttons photographed decades ago now come in to buy photos of their own kids or grandchildren. There's just something about having a printed photo people can treasure, says Art Sutton, 64. They hang them on walls, proudly display them in frames. And now, they will be displayed at 21 funerals and memorial services.

On Thursday, the Suttons' photo printers hummed and pushed out pictures, most of them clusters of portraits and class photos. In between visits from grieving family members to their small store 2 miles away from Robb Elementary, the couple debated whether a certain picture looked too red to send home with a tearful mother, and they made a new copy they liked better.

The school district has asked them to not release class photos yet, but some parents were permitting the media to show pictures of their children.

“To look at the faces of these children coming out of the printer – they’re gone forever," Art Sutton says as a tear escapes. "We are trying to make those memories that you can have forever, and we’re trying to make these as good as we can make them.”

Nancy Sutton attended Uvalde schools, as did the Sutton kids. Next year, their grandchildren are set to start at Robb Elementary. Teachers and administrators, janitors and support staff have come and gone. But still the Suttons remain, keeping alive the tradition in an era of camera phones and TikTok videos, when every child they capture has grown up in front of a lens.

Decades ago, the store was crammed with chemicals and equipment needed to develop film from their cameras. Now, computers and digital printers have replaced them, but that not changed their ethos: They don't have an ordering website, so anyone who wants to buy prints has to fill out a form.

Immediately after the shooting, the Suttons rushed to their digital archives to pull out the class pictures, from formal individual portraits to the class pictures posed with their teachers. Looking at the small smiling faces of the two fourth grade classes, Nancy Sutton notices two kids have somehow sneaked into both class photos. She laughs as she realizes it, shaking her head at their trick. Then she remembers: Of the 30 or so kids in the two classes, most are dead.

Friday, three days after the shooting, a steady stream of parents stop by Uvalde Photo to collect the free prints the Suttons have painstakingly made for each family.

Next fall, the Suttons hope to be back at Robb Elementary, and all of the district’s other schools, to take photos of the students. But for the 19 students killed on Tuesday, the Suttons have only one last round of photos for funerals and memorial displays, for parents to remember their child captured on camera in a school once considered a haven of safety and growth.

“To see their little faces all the way back to first grade, to see how those little faces have changed, it hurts,” Sutton says, fanning the pictures out. “One mom who came in yesterday said she just can’t cry anymore. And I cried for her. And now I’m kind of past the crying now. At least for the moment. And I’m honored to be able to do this in remembrance of these children.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Uvalde photographers' class pictures bring tragedy into full focus