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.
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.
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."
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.