‘The Police Didn’t Know What Was Going to Happen’: 5 Photographers on What It Was Like to Document the Storming of the US Capitol
We spoke with a group of photojournalists about the chaotic scene.
What has historically been the routine task of ratifying the results of the U.S. presidential election devolved into unprecedented chaos on Wednesday as insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, overrunning law enforcement and vandalizing the building in a brazen attempt to interrupt the proceedings.
Urged on by President Donald Trump at a rally outside the White House, and fueled by the false belief that the election results are fraudulent, the protesters became an invading force, waving Confederate flags and neo-Nazi banners at the seat of U.S. democracy.
The mob was eventually cleared off the premises and Congress resumed its session, certifying the election of Joe Biden in the wee hours of the night. But the uprising marked the first time since the British invaded during the War of 1812 that Washington was so overrun.
The scene was documented by a fearless press corps that braved tear gas, pepper spray, and attacks to record the day’s events, which so far have left five dead. We spoke to five photographers about their experiences capturing this dark moment in U.S. history.
Jon Cherry, freelance photographer, Getty Images
Over the summer, I shot 38 consecutive days of protests in Louisville, Kentucky, related to the Breonna Taylor killing. I knew there was going to be an insurrection attempt of some kind just based off of the online chatter from Trump supporters such as the Proud Boys.
I originally pitched it to Getty and they said their coverage needs were already fulfilled. But I made the nine-and-a-half hour drive anyway. This was actually my first time visiting Washington, DC. The night before, my editors said they actually did need some coverage help, so they assigned me an area to be on the east lawn.
I have a press pass that’s attached to my bullet proof vest. Dozens of people came up to me asking who I was with, and if I was Antifa. I would tell them I was shooting for Getty Images. They would say, “that sounds like fake news to me.”
As a Black member of the media, I have often found myself the target of harassment from these far-right groups. When I was taking photographs of Proud Boys before they started marching, one of them started fake coughing and sneezing on me without a mask.
I spoke to one of the Proud Boys, named Billy. He said he stuck up for me because some of the others thought I wasn’t really media, and that I was Antifa and was going to try to attack them. I was there with other media and I gave no sign that I was different than them other than the color of my skin. It’s a very uncomfortable position for [Black members of the media] to be in.
But I joined the Proud Boys in their formation as they marched from the west side of the Capitol to the east side of the Capitol. They started getting each other riled up, screaming and chanting. Some of them announced that it was time to rush the Capitol.
At this point, it was pretty obvious the police didn’t know what was going to happen. They tried as hard as they could to keep the barriers intact, but eventually the Proud Boys made their way in.
I had a faulty gas mask, so I didn’t even wear it. Fortunately I wear glasses, so the pepper spray didn’t get into my eyes, but it still makes you cough and sneeze pretty heavily. The tear gas wasn’t as powerful; it just had kind of an itching burn in my lungs.
Another thing that leads me to believe the police were not prepared for this potential insurrection is that they didn’t even have gas masks on. They were suffering the effects of their own tear gas and their own pepper spray.
The level of violence that was happening at that point, with melee weapons and projectiles—the only thing that wasn’t happening yet was gunfire. I didn’t want to end up in position where there were live rounds going off inside the Capitol building, and I didn’t have a way out. So I stood at entrances and took photos.
There is a shot that describes the day quite well. I took it from the west pavilion, inside one of the tunnels. There are crowds inside and it’s very dark, and one of the platforms outside is stuffed banister to banister with Trump supporters. In the foreground, all you see is the tops of the heads of all of the people with the tunnel who are shrouded in shadow. There’s a natural frame from the ornate stonework of the tunnel. I was very intentional about that composition, and it turned out exactly how I wanted it.
Kent Nishimura, Los Angeles Times
My plan was to start out at the rally near the White House and to make my way back to the hill for the certification, but once they marched to the Capitol, it took on a life as its own.
I initially started out on the west side of the Capitol, but a line of law enforcement officers was blocking the mob from getting access initially. I walked around to the east side right as they were about to breach the doors.
It didn’t seem like there was much of a plan. Some of them came in with full tactical gear and zip-tie handcuffs. But most seemed just intent on getting in, because that’s what the mob mentality was saying they should do.
I was definitely surprised that they made it all the way in. When I came around the side of the building, I was honestly shocked that they were even on the steps. It honestly didn’t settle in until I saw the doors open and that wave of people starting pouring in. At some point I got locked in with a group of people.
I basically felt myself being carried by the flow of the mob into the Capitol. I have a hill credential, so I am allowed to be there.
I wasn’t fearful—I had so much adrenaline pumping through my system, I didn’t have time to think about that. The paper outfitted me with gear. I had a helmet, ballistic body armor, and a gas mask, and ballistic eye gear and a respirator. I was misted with pepper spray a bunch of times and my skin felt like it was on fire.
The scene inside was chaotic. People were going in every direction. They were writing on walls and knocking over and destroying equipment that was set up for the vote. There was shattered glass on the floor.
The weirdest thing that I noticed was that a lot of them were just taking selfies of themselves in the building. They literally just broke into a federal building and now they are documenting the act!
I took photo of a window on the east door, you could see the crack on the bullet proof glass and I caught the reflection of the American flag in the window, and the crack is right over. And you can see some of the residue of the pepper spay projectiles on the door.
It was an after-the-moment image, but it felt very poignant and really summarized the mood, in a metaphorical sense, of what had happened that day.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, Agence France Presse
I’m the editor of photography at AFP, which has about 10 or 11 staff photographers across the country. As a wire photographer, you get thrown into any situation, and you have to be able to produce. Six or seven of us were working that day.
We knew the president was speaking early, and that his supporters would be there early, so some photographers started in the morning. I had pulled the afternoon shift. In the past, people tend to start to get really aggressive and fight as the day drags on. So my job was to come on at 3 p.m. and see which way the night went.
You can see the Capitol all the way down at the Washington Monument. As soon as I got onto the mall, I could see that the press risers set up ahead of the inauguration had been taken over and the protesters had made it all the way onto the steps. You could see a thin line of police further up watching them but not doing anything.
Since I arrived late, my colleagues got much better photos of the riots with the tear gas being used. My one picture that for me captured the day was the noose someone had set up on the National Mall. It was a large structure. They wrote on the side of it “this is art.” There were a lot of people who just loved it.
I have had a lot of people saying on social media that it was fake, that it never happened, that I Photoshopped it, that nobody would do that. They want evidence; they’re like “send me more angles.” People didn’t want to believe that’s what was out there and that people were responding to it positively.
There was a lot of aggression toward the police, a lot of cussing them, telling them to go “f” themselves, saying that the police are turncoats and traitors.
In the evening, when things were quieting down, there was a Trump supporter yelling at the cops. He said “This isn’t over. We’re going to be back, and next time we’re going to bring our guns. I’m gonna see you from 60 yards away, but you’re not gonna see me”—in the sense of a scope and a rifle. He kept repeating that to the police: “You betrayed us. I’m coming for you.”
The people who were trying to take over the Capitol, they really believed in what they were doing and they were ready for a fight. My general sense was that they felt justified in their reaction.
On a macro scale, it was very similar to protests I’ve been to in the past and the experience of being in an aggressive crowd. But when was the last time that the Capitol was invaded? It was in the 1800s. The significance of what we were witnessing stood out more than anything I’ve ever covered in my career.
Tayfun Coskun, Anadolu Agency
I have been covering protests and rallies for many years. 2020 was so busy for me with COVID-19, protests, and riots. The most memorable images that I captured the were of the Kyle Rittenhouse shooting in Kenosha.
After what I saw happen in the Kenosha riots, I think I was already expecting what was coming. They seemed so angry and frustrated. But as a Turkish American, I was kind of surprised.
I started my day at 5 a.m. at President Trump’s “Save America March” event. After filing the photos from my office, I heard about lockdown of the Capitol. I ran almost 1.5 miles to get there. I saw the massive crowd was heading to the U.S. Capitol building. I wasn’t expecting the crowd would break into the building.
The photo that I took from the scaffolding in the center shows all the crowds with a wide angle, and tells [the story of the day]. I climbed up a tiny ladder [to get up there]. I held on every step very tight.
As a journalist, I did not feel any animosity. They were mostly angry about the network TVs like CNN, AP, FOX—whoever they think is on Biden’s side. But they also attacked some journalists who were wearing all black and looked like Antifa—which they were not. My friend took a video of the crowd attacking and throwing a New York photojournalist who was dressed up all black and with a gas mask.
When I see they were breaking the media’s equipment, I felt really sad for those journalists. It could have happened to me too. You can cover the expense of the equipment, but you cannot get back your exertion, work, labor etc. I feel really sorry to them. Hope they got their SD and CF cards from the cameras…
Evelyn Hockstein, freelancer for the Washington Post
I was planning to shoot a rally at 5 p.m., but when I heard that the Capitol had been breached, I grabbed my stuff to go.
I saw throngs and throngs of people all over the lawn and scaling the walls. There were just flags everywhere. It was so dense and thick. Everything was trampled and everyone was swarming. It was very overwhelming and a little bit frightening.
My first reaction, my eyes just welled up with tears. Congress is the center of our legislative process. It’s hallowed; it’s historic. Our elected officials work there to make laws and protect our constitution. They work for the American people, for all sides. It represents the values that are sacred to the United States. Our systems may be imperfect, but that is the place that we try to make this country the best that it can be. Seeing this mob scene and people trying to break in and wreak havoc on the foundation of our American democracy, I was very distraught.
I was listening to the people in the crowd, and they thought they were going to show the world that the election was rigged. I don’t know what they thought they were going to do inside the halls of Congress, but for them, this breach was somehow a great patriotic act to preserve fairness and election integrity in this country.
I knew I wasn’t going to get inside the Capitol, so I felt like should aim for a wider shot. [As I went through the crowd,] I got these guys with neo-Nazi flags firing off colored smoke from atop the walls, and photos of people scaling the walls.
After I had been shooting for awhile, my inclination was that I should move soon and try to get something different. But it was very hard to work through that crowd, so I knew I wasn’t necessarily going to get somewhere else that was better. And I could see the police were making a move to get people off the Capitol grounds.
It was getting dark, and they started firing tear gas. There was one shot where the tear gas went off and I thought “oh my gosh.”
Here’s the United States Capitol and this guy with his arms up and a Trump flag, and other people are fleeing… I knew that image was going to resonate. It captured the drama of the day, even though it was not the people storming in. It showed the scope and size and scale of the events that had happened.
Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
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