“This was a journey fraught with danger and mired with uncertainty.”

As record numbers of refugees began arriving on Europe’s shores this year, the situation flooded Dan Kitwood’s mind with questions.

“What makes someone leave his or her home to embark on a journey, knowing of the dangers that lie ahead? To lead their husband, their wife, their children into uncertainty, knowing that in the unlikely event you make it to your destination, you will probably never return?”

The award-winning Getty Images photojournalist felt compelled to tell this story and shed light on the people risking their lives for a chance at freedom and safety.

“This story is fundamentally about people — what they had left behind, where they were going, and the journey in between. People clinging to their hopes and dreams for a better future and in many cases, trying to forget about the horrors they had left behind,” Kitwood said. “This was a journey fraught with danger and mired with uncertainty.”

Kitwood followed the same path as many of the migrants. He started his journey on the Greek island of Kos and made his way through mainland Greece, into Macedonia and Serbia, finally ending in Hungary.

“I was swept along the same tide that brought many to the shores of Greece; I was walking in the footsteps of the hundreds of thousands of refugee families before me,” Kitwood said. “Unlike most however, I knew where I was going, I had a rough idea of when I would be back and help was only a phone call away — a luxury not afforded to many.”

While Kitwood is no stranger to conflict and crisis, covering this issue weighed heavily on him.

“In contrast to the humanitarian stories I had covered in the past, this story was complex and at times overwhelming,” he said. “Trying to rationalize the scenes before me was incredibly difficult.”

One photo in particular stands out for him as an example of  the penetrating emotions embedded in this crisis; it features prominently in Getty Images’ 2015 Year In Focus.

One morning in Kos, Kitwood stood on the beach where many refugees had been arriving in small dinghies. Just then, a small vessel carrying a group of Pakistani men happened to land close to him, and Kitwood captured the intense moment of the men’s arrival on land.

“The scene before me was no different than the thousands before it and the many thousands after it —people arriving to safety,” Kitwood said. “The sense of relief etched into the face of this man in is palpable. The tragedy is the ones that don’t make it.”

While Kitwood watched as people arrived on land, showing gratitude and joy for having survived the journey, he couldn’t help but feel somber, knowing the struggles that were in store for these individuals.

“I felt sad after taking this picture because I knew what lie ahead for them,” he said. “I knew that while it was the end of the first chapter in their story, the proceeding ones were to be even more challenging. I also knew that they were just a handful of the hundreds of thousands of people that had made the very same journey.”

See more  images from 2015’s biggest news stories. Explore our Year in Focus, available on iBooks.