‘It didn’t seem real’: Looking back on the Jan. 6 insurrection

A year later, the reality of what happened at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 is still sinking in.

While emails, text messages, power point presentations and congressional testimony have helped us better understand how and why it happened, there are still a lot of Americans — including many members of Congress — who downplay the events of the day. They blame the media. They say anti-fascists infiltrated the crowd and sparked the violence to make President Trump look bad. One member of Congress actually described the day’s events as a “normal tourist visit.”

Yet, the photos and videos from Jan. 6 are incontrovertible. We know what happened. We saw it unfold in real time. No amount of gaslighting can change that. Many of the photographers and photojournalists who documented the scene are still coming to terms with what they witnessed.

“I recall the faces of very scared and worried Capitol police officers as they were driven up the Capitol steps by the mob,” Lloyd Wolf said.  “The people in the mob were ecstatic, bizarrely taking selfies as they charged the Capitol; howling wildly … out of control … raging. That made a deep and jarring impression on me.”

Now Available

Transition: The End of an UnPresidented Four Years documents what was happening in the streets during the final turbulent months of the Trump administration, including the events of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection.

Chris Suspect said he felt like it couldn’t really be happening.

“While it was real, it didn’t really seem real at the time, it was more like I was in an alternate reality,” he said.

Their photos were included in Transition: The End of an UnPresidented Four Years, the book we published in October that documents what happened in the streets during the final turbulent months of the Trump administration. The book covers the protests and celebrations, the deadly Jan. 6 attempt to overthrow the election results and the most surreal inauguration day the nation has ever seen.

Most of the nine photographers whose Jan. 6 photos are in Transition came out that day expecting to shoot a typical DC rally and protest. While there’s always a chance of violence at those events, no one could have imagined that the the day would go so far off the rails. To mark the anniversary, we asked them to share some of their thoughts about Jan. 6.

'We will stop the steal'

© Sandy Adams
Adams

Sandy Adams had been photographing the rally at the Ellipse. She was there when Trump fired the crowd up with his false claims that the election had been stolen from him. When she followed the crowd over to the Capitol and saw the knocked over barricades, she knew things weren’t right. Seeing people on the steps of the Capitol where they are usually not allowed, was also a huge red flag, she said. But the thing that made the biggest impression that day was seeing people carrying pitch forks on the National Mall and at the Capitol.

Eisendrath

By that time, there were thousands of people making their way to the Capitol. Ben Eisendrath said he turned a corner and looked down Independence Avenue and saw a column of Trump supporters filling the roadway as far as he could see.

© Ben Eisendrath

'It was like a dam breaking'

© Lloyd Wolf
Wolf

It had been a noisy but essentially peaceful demonstration as people started massing at the Capitol. However, that changed when a group of about a 100 people charged through the barriers, rushing past the handful of police on the Capitol’s east plaza, Lloyd Wolf said.

“When everyone realized the minuscule contingent of police could do nothing to stop them, it was like a dam breaking. The crowd surged over the barricades, thousands racing to the Capitol steps,” Wolf said. “I think it was when I saw a Confederate flag being waved on the Capitol steps and the repeated chants of ‘Hang Pelosi’ . . . ‘Hang Pence’ . . .  ‘Hang Biden,’ and, ‘We’re the Party of Trump’ . . . when I realized that this had never before happened in American history: The Capitol attacked by its own citizens. “

Sardari

Kaveh Sardari couldn’t believe what he was seeing when he made his way over to the Capitol from the Trump rally.

“I have covered assignments on the Hill for the last 30 years but never believed I would witness a mass attack on that sacred ground,” Sardari said. “As I was capturing the crowd on the west front of the Capitol, I heard a woman next to me scream in joy, ‘they are in the chamber,’ that’s when I knew things had gone further than anyone had imagined.”

'The entire day seemed . . . surreal'

© Chris Suspect
Suspect

Chris Suspect had also been at the rally. By the time he made it over to the Capitol at about 1:20 p.m. things were already out of hand as Trump supporters were taking on the police on the east side.

For Suspect, the image he took that day that stands out for him is the one at the top of this page. It shows a Trump supporter yelling, holding a baseball bat with a Trump flag in one hand and a cell phone in his other, the Capitol dome in the background.

“My overwhelming recollection is how the entire day seemed like I was on a surreal movie set for an apocalyptic movie,” he said.

Sebastian

Sofía Sebastián arrived a little after 2 p.m. and recalls how “off” everything seemed as she surveyed the the scene from the fringe of the Capitol grounds. To Sebastián, it felt like a scene from the Garden of Earthly Delights, a famous 15th Century Bosco painting that many interpret as a warning of the dangers of worldly excess.

“I was particularly taken aback by the fact that crowds had made it into the Capitol grounds and no one seemed to care or be doing anything about it,” she said.

© Mukul Ranjan
© Mukul Ranjan
Ranjan

Despite the chaos and skirmishes between the mob and police officers, the crowd was large enough that not everyone there seemed aware of what was taking place inside the Capitol, said Mukul Ranjan.

Ranjan recalls thinking that people who were breaking into the Capitol had no idea of the consequences they would face. Some of them, like Jacob Chansley,  the self-proclaimed ‘QAnon Shaman’ pictured above, would even enjoy a brief moment of celebrity. In November, Chansley was sentenced to 41 months in jail after he pleaded guilty to obstruction of an official proceeding. As part of a plea deal, the other charges against Chansley were dropped.

'I told myself I need to keep moving'

© Shedrick Pelt
© Shedrick Pelt

Most of the photographers remember various moments where they felt unsafe. Both Ranjan and Suspect recall being afraid they might get crushed when the crowd closed in, especially after the National Guard started dropping smoke bombs and flash bangs into the crowd. Yet, Ranjan adds that for him, it was not as dangerous as some of the police actions against Black Lives Matter protestors that he has been caught up in.

Chang

Eric Chang, who had arrived at the Capitol after seeing the events on TV,  said as the 6 p.m. curfew approached, he started making his way through the crowd of Trump supporters.

“I have two vivid memories. The first was watching someone who was badly injured being carried away by his friends. The other was getting too cocky and getting too close to the Capitol on the mall side,” Chang said. As he worked his way through the crowd, a flash bang went off at his feet. “That’s when I realized I was in over my head.”

© Eric Chang
© Kaveh Sardari
© Sofia Sebastian
Pelt

Shedrick Pelt said as a Black man, he felt unsafe most of the time he was photographing the crowd of far-right Trump supporters.

“I told myself, I need to keep moving as to not let them zero in on me,” Pelt said. “As I’m moving around the grounds, people are eyeing me up, stepping in my path. I’ve got a respirator and goggles on making it clear I was Covid conscious, and they were purposely coughing on me as I passed by.”

© Sandy Adams

Of the many photos he took that day, the one that stands out for him was the photo of the man holding the smoke canisters aloft after he scaled a retaining wall. “It captures the shameless, false bravado of the moment with the pastel smoke like a gender reveal and the sense of accomplishment for climbing a wall when the staircase was 10-feet stage left,” he said.

For Adams, it was the photo she took of Richard Barnett, who is showing off the letter he took from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office. Barnett is awaiting trial on seven federal charges.

The Union trampled underfoot

© Ben Eisendrath

And then there is the photo that Eisendrath took of the people on and about part of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, the majestic monument that sits on the west side of the Capitol next to the reflecting pool. Eisendrath titled the photo, “The Perversion of Iwo Jima.”

There are so many aspects of this image that stand out. Someone waving a Battle Flag of the Confederacy while sitting on top of a sculpture honoring the man who led the Union armies during the Civil War is truly jarring. The Grant Memorial, which took 20 years to build and was dedicated in 1922, serves as a bookend to the National Mall. Two miles to the west, at the other end of the National Mall, sits the Lincoln Memorial, with the mall literally and figuratively connecting the memorials of the two men credited with saving the Union.

I’m struck by the people around the base, who are far enough way from the riot at the Capitol that they bring to mind the onlookers who trekked out to Manassas, Va. to watch the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. The history books tell us that many of those Washingtonians showed up with picnic baskets and opera glasses.

A normal tourist visit, indeed.

Joe Newman is the founder of Focus on the Story and the editor of Transition: The End of an UnPresidented Four Years.

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