Covering the Election

“A view of anything”: Photographing the insurrection

January 8, 2021
During the mob takeover of the Capitol, Saul Loeb encountered Richard Barnett, a Trump supporter, seated at the desk of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Congress was on break when Tom Williams, a photographer for CQ Roll Call, stepped out of the House chamber to file some shots of the vote to certify the election. Then he noticed something out a window facing east: a skirmish between dozens of cops and hundreds of Donald Trump supporters. “I thought they would run up and occupy the steps with their flags, cheer, take pictures, and eventually be cleared out,” Williams said. He shrugged and returned to what he was doing. Then he heard a bang on the door: the mob was breaking in.

The crowd seemed ready for a photo opportunity; democracy was under siege by a spectacle of costumes, body paint, and an unknown number of weapons. Some of the insurrectionists wore maga hats or camo-gear; they brandished flags for Trump and for the Confederacy; few wore masks. Williams headed out to find a good vantage point and saw people with bleary eyes—the rioters and the police had exchanged pepper spray, he later learned—and bloodstained faces. He captured some images of rioters shoving their way through a wall of police. Soon, an officer escorted Williams and a few other photographers to the third-floor gallery of the House chamber, then told them to lie low. He clenched his equipment. “I was trying to quickly and surreptitiously take pictures the whole time,” he said. “We were like, Holy shit.” A throng had entered the Capitol.

Saul Loeb, a staff photographer for Agence France-Presse, had been editing images in a workspace on the third floor, on the Senate side of the Capitol, when he heard a loudspeaker announcement referring vaguely to a security situation in the building and instructing people to take cover. He followed that directive at first—until he heard a rumbling, and followed the noise. Hundreds of Trump supporters swarmed the Rotunda, unencumbered by law enforcement. “They were streaming in from every direction, coming from everywhere,” Loeb said. “Seemingly, the protesters had complete control over that area of the Capitol.”

It was surreal: Loeb watched as they chanted, posed for selfies with statues, and livestreamed along the way. In the Senate chamber, an insurrectionist decked in all black stood atop the dais, his gloved fist raised beneath the inscription E pluribus unum; another slouched in a chair, holding up a smartphone—despite the brazen means by which he’d infiltrated, he looked rather bored, or numb—a black hoodie over his red cap, jacket unzipped. “I think they were also amazed that they were there,” Loeb said. “I mean, I don’t think in their wildest dreams they could have imagined that they would actually get into the building. I think they were all just like, Well, this was our plan, but we didn’t think it was actually gonna happen. And so, like, what do we do now?” Loeb followed with his camera.

As he traversed the corridors, Loeb saw members of the mob sitting at desks, settling in front of computers, and sifting through papers. He stopped at Nancy Pelosi’s suite. “There was a woman wearing a maga hat, and she was vaping or something, making herself at home,” he said. “I also came across another guy at another desk in the office, looking through the mail there, with his feet up on the desk like he owned the place. You know, he wasn’t upset that I was taking his picture; he didn’t try to hide his face at all, or anything.” Loeb snapped a photo, which soon went viral.

In the hall, he encountered a man in a bull-horned Viking hat and fur, his face painted red, white, and blue, sparring with an officer. That was, as it turned out, Jake Angeli, a QAnon believer from Arizona who has been a fixture at right-wing extremist gatherings—and schooled at making himself irresistible to photographers. Loeb got a shot. “These protesters were obviously very visually interesting,” he said. Plus: “At that point, they could basically do whatever they wanted in, you know, a good amount of that building.”

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Back in the House chamber, Williams braced for impact. “You could hear the rioters outside the chamber,” he said. “The police ordered us to get gas masks out from under our seats and have them ready.” Soon, Williams and the rest of his group were escorted to a safe location elsewhere in the building. On his route, he said, he passed “a bunch of the guys the police detained and laid out on the floor, all over the place.”

By then, officers were more focused on the security of elected officials than the hell-bent crowd. In a livestream that went viral, members of the mob could be seen chatting convivially, as if on a tour of the Capitol. A cop leaned in for a selfie with an insurrectionist and gave him a friendly nod. There was no visible standoff; if not for the uniforms, the cops would have been indistinguishable from the rioters. From where Loeb was standing, elsewhere in the building, he said, “I realize now that what these police officers were trying to do was engage peacefully with them to buy time for the senators and staff in the chamber to evacuate safely.”

Outside, Leah Millis, a photographer for Reuters, raced down Independence Avenue, on the west side of the Capitol. Instinctively, she put on a gas mask and helmet—she’d covered confrontations with police before—and found a place to climb on scaffolding for the stage that had been set up for inauguration. By nightfall, security was escalating, and she’d lost cell service. Millis cut bait, seeking a corner of the Capitol where she could find a connection to file her photos. Windows had been broken, she observed; furniture had been vandalized and dragged out of the building. Somewhere along the way, she was doused in pepper spray. Armed forces in fatigues appeared. “That’s when they finally started to release flash-bangs into the crowd and tear gas to truly disperse the crowd,” she said. She managed to take a photo of the explosion—a blaze of light onto the vulnerability of America’s center of governance. 

Later that evening, Williams uploaded his pictures from the break-in. A particularly evocative image depicts the anguish on the faces of House members as they take cover; in one photograph, Rep. Jason Crow can be seen comforting Rep. Susan Wild, whose hand is on her heart. The chaotic and violent threat of right-wing extremism had now been made manifest, and resolved into a chilling visual. “I was just trying to get a view of anything,” Williams said. “So whoever I had a clean composition of, I shot quickly—because I wasn’t supposed to be taking pictures.”

ICYMI: The mob that stormed the capital was its own media

Shinhee Kang is a freelance journalist and former CJR fellow.