'It Happened Right In Front of Me': A Photographer Captures Grief at Newtown and Columbine

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Essdras Suarez, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Colorado school shooting, recently took pictures of the mourning at Sandy Hook. Here, he describes what it's like to document this kind of tragedy.

columbine-top.jpgAt Columbine, after taking this photo of a victim's sobbing friend and documenting students' funerals, Suarez asked his paper to "please get me out of there." (Essdras M Suarez/Rocky Mountain News)

In October 2003, while on a reporting assignment with photographer Essdras Suarez in the southern Venezuelan village of Kanavayen, I watched as Essdras spent an hour taking photos of children playing on a slide.

The next year, in Lorino, an ice-cloaked town on the Russian side of the Bering Strait, Essdras wandered off to photograph two kids jumping along a row of tires.

In el-Arish, Sudan, where date trees nestle near the fourth cataract of the Nile, he stopped to capture images of students as they raised hands high in response to a teacher's questions.

I recently asked Essdras, a good friend with whom I have spent more than 200 days reporting in more than a dozen countries, why he is so often drawn to document the daily lives of children. "Because they are the first to forget that there is a stranger watching them," Essdras told me. "They are the first to behave as they behave when you are not there."

I was having this conversation with Essdras, who is a staff photographer at my former employer The Boston Globe, a few days after reading a Facebook post in which he said that he'd arrived on assignment in Newtown just hours after the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"Driving here," Essdras posted on Facebook, "I became Columbine sad."

***

On the morning of April 20, 1999, Essdras, a native of Panama who is a black belt in Ninpo Taijutsu and a former U.S. Air Force medic, had been working out at his local gym in Denver, Colorado. He was a young staff photographer at the Rocky Mountain News at the time, and when the first reports of a shooting were broadcast on televisions in the gym, Essdras raced home to grab his gear and head to Columbine High School.

Last week, I asked Essdras to tell me about his experience covering an attack so rare and horrific -- guns turned on students.

"I was the first media car they turned away from the school," Essdras responded in an email. "The police established a perimeter of about a mile around the school, and I spent the next couple of hours trying to get into the area. Finally ... I was able to get closer, and I shot all the way up until 11 p.m. that night."

As details emerged that two students had killed 12 students and one teacher, Essdras photographed the sorrow. I asked Essdras why it is important for photojournalists to capture such scenes. He gave a personal answer.

"I am trying to document real suffering, real grief, because it is part of life," Essdras said. "In order to stay true, that's what you do."

Essdras said he was less shaken by the killings at Columbine than were his colleagues who had children of their own. He stayed on, following the urging of editors, who wanted photographers on the scene to get intimate images of the grieving community. Essdras and other Rocky Mountain News photographers were later honored with the Pulitzer Prize for their work.

After eight or nine consecutive days covering Columbine, Essdras was in a high school parking lot that still held vehicles of students who had been killed. The vehicles had become informal memorials.

"I was watching a group of kids approach a pick-up truck, and a kid wearing a letter jacket caught my attention," Essdras wrote to me. "I don't know why he is the one I decided to follow with my camera, but as he kept getting closer and closer to the truck his face became more and more somber, and then his visage turned to pain, and then uncontrollable crying and sobbing by the time he finally touched the vehicle. I made a couple of images, and all of a sudden I found myself not shooting, with my cameras hanging by my side and with tears rolling down my cheeks. I called my office and asked them to please get me out of there, that apparently it had finally gotten to me."

***

On the first week of January 2002, Essdras and I began work at the Boston Globe, and he was assigned to shoot photographs for the first story I wrote for the newspaper. We soon became a team exploring life around the world, often in remote stretches. In southern Venezuela, we reported about squatters in a gold mine and the spiritual life of a native community near a historic Catholic mission. In the Russian far north, it was the collapse of communism and the return of subsistence hunting to the frozen stretches of Chukotka. In Sudan and Egypt, it was the strength of Islam in the eastern Sahara.

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Tom Haines is a journalist and an assistant professor of English at the University of New Hampshire.

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