When supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, The Associated Press had nine photographers inside and outside the building.
As the chaotic day unfolded, they shot hundreds of photos that were transmitted live within minutes, giving the world a front-row seat to the shocking events.
The AP’s team of photographers captured the chaos from a variety of vantage points, shooting frame after frame from inside the surging crowd, from upper floors of the Capitol looking down on the raging riot and from inside the Capitol itself as glass shattered and guns were drawn in a stunning, surreal and terrifying moment of history.
Julio Cortez, an AP photographer based in Baltimore, was in Washington D.C., at the Trump outdoor rally in the morning and then headed to the Capitol ahead of the march, arriving just after 1 p.m. Here’s his account:
“Going into the day, I had an idea of the possibilities of danger because of all the chatter I had been seeing. The night before, at Freedom Plaza, I photographed a gathering of Trump supporters who were vocally expressing how violent they were willing to go in their efforts to stop the election results from being formally counted by Congress
Those sentiments echoed early in the morning as people started to arrive in Washington for what quickly became a massive rally. A man walked around with a blowhorn saying that after the rally near the Washington Monument, they should head over to the Capitol and stop electoral vote count that would give Joe Biden the presidency.
I did not wait for the end of the rally and decided to go with my teammate John Minchillo to the Capitol to get ahead of the crowd.
By the time we got near the Capitol, we were just behind the first group of people scuffling with cops at barricades surrounding the building. We suited up with our gas masks and helmets and headed toward the chaos. We jockeyed for position up front near the protesters.
As I raced up the steps, I stopped to take a photograph of protesters playing tug-of-war with a barricade against authorities. I framed my image of the moment with the Capitol building in the background. As I pressed the shutter, I thought about how surreal that scene was and how I really couldn’t believe this was happening. Framing the building as a backdrop allowed me to show the world exactly how this moment was unfolding.
I heard a man trying to tell the crowd to form a plan to enter the building. Along with the many bad words the protesters were yelling at authorities, the officials were called traitors. One man was heard yelling, “Wait till we come back next with our big guns!”
The sights and sounds really struck me, and at the moment I thought, “This is it! The civil war is starting now.”
For about 45 minutes, I photographed protesters and authorities scuffling back-and-forth. One protester put his hands on my camera lens and threatened me for looking his way. Another man, wearing fingerless gloves, dared cops to a fistfight. A man wearing a “Make America Great Again” blue beanie cap was shot with a rubber bullet that pierced his left cheek. With the pellet still in the hole, he chewed on a gauze wrap, while a bystander told him to stay calm because he was going into shock.
Meanwhile, I tried to stay calm myself. I kept an eye out on Minchillo at all times. And unfortunately, during a moment when the authorities seemed to have pushed back the crowd, the protesters turned on Minchillo and aggressively dragged him down a few steps, punched him, shoved him, threatened his life and finally threw him over a small retaining wall. At that moment, I went into protect mode and figured out a way to intervene without making things worse. Luckily, we were able to back off from the scene for safety.
But when we tried to get back to the front of the crowd, it was too late. Hundreds of people tried to enter the small doors of the building. We tried to push our way up to the front but were quickly threatened by protesters. At a different door, an officer was standing on the threshold shaking hands with protesters as they went in.
We tried really hard to get into the building, but I kept reminding myself that we had a very good team of photographers covering this event and had several photographers inside the building to provide images of what was going on there.
Eventually, the National Guard arrived and took control of the situation, which gave me some peace because I wasn’t sure what would happen once it got dark.
The day shook me in many ways. Two weeks later, I had to go back to cover the inauguration of President Biden. I was afraid the man who yelled he’d be back with his big guns would make good on his threat. It took me more than two hours to say goodbye to my wife and kids before heading to Washington to prepare for inauguration coverage. I cried. I thought I would never come home.”
Meanwhile, AP photographer Andrew Harnik was inside the Capitol, covering Congress as he has for 18 years:
“Compared to the photographers assigned to cover the rally at the White House and the march to the Capitol outside all day, I thought Jan. 6 was going to be a short, comfortable day for me. Congress started their joint session to certify the presidential election at about 1 p.m.
At about 2 p.m., I got a call from one of my editors. He said they were hearing things were intense on the east side of the Capitol and asked me to check it out but stay inside the building.
I remember being a little frustrated. I had a lot of work to do, and there’s always a protest somewhere. D.C. is a place where Americans from all over the country come to have their voices heard. It’s not unusual to see people gathering at the White House, on the National Mall and definitely at the Capitol building. Rising reluctantly, I grabbed my cameras and, leaving my laptop and camera bag at my desk, headed toward the center of the building on the third floor. At the first window I came across, I looked out to the plaza below and could see that this wasn’t the usual gathering of protesters. A group of people, most wearing some combination of Trump hats, shirts, posters, and flags, was gathering at the main steps at the center of the east side of the building and the group was getting bigger by the minute.
From a huge round window in a men’s bathroom, I took some photographs and made a short video of the scene below me. I could see the crowd was surging on a small group of Capitol Police officers trying to push their way up onto the main stairs onto a landing. These steps are always off-limits because they lead to two large doors and then the Rotunda, the large room at the center of the building under the dome. If you’ve ever watched a funeral ceremony for a former president or dignitary, these are the steps where the casket is carried in.
Suddenly, the crowd pushed forward as the hopelessly outnumbered police line broke apart and people poured up the stairs toward the doors. From my vantage point, I couldn’t see what was happening below me, but I could hear cheering and glass breaking, followed by a huge explosion and smoke rising, which I could only guess came from a flash-bang grenade used in a vain attempt to disperse the crowd. People took up every space on the landing outside the doors.
We have state-of-the-art digital cameras that can connect directly to wireless internet. I turned this feature on and began sending digital photos in real time back to our editors in Washington who would receive them and publish them.
After a few minutes, I left the window and walked down a set of stairs nearby. I was at the main doors. Through the small windows in the doors, I could see the backs of two police officers, one in each window. It was clear they were pressed up against the doors unable to move. Beyond them, a sea of people was yelling and rowdy. I took photographs of people through the windows, and as I did, a man closest to the officers motioned for me to open the doors for him. I ignored him and looked over my shoulder to the Rotunda. During a normal day, before the pandemic, this was a bustling room: Groups of tourists from all over the country would turn their heads to look up at the fresco-painted ceiling as politicians, while staff and members of the media scurried from one side of the building to the other. Today, it was completely empty and silent. The only sound was the echoes of yelling coming through the door before me.
A police officer told me to return to my office, but when I got there, the door was locked, the lights were off, and no one answered my knocking on the door. Another officer led me and a second photographer to the House gallery. We got to one of the last doors that was still open, and the officer pushed us through and locked the door behind us.
The scene below us on the House floor was tense. A member of security yelled to everyone in the room to take out gas masks underneath our chairs and to put them on. They started telling members of Congress on the House floor to evacuate the building, and they were picking up any furniture or object that wasn’t attached to the ground — benches, signs and tables — and stacking them at the main center door to the chamber. Suddenly, we heard glass breaking, and I realized there were people on the other side of the door trying to get in. The police, most of them dressed in a suit and tie, pulled out their handguns and pointed them at the people on the other side of the door. By now, the floor was almost completely evacuated. The members of Congress surrounding me up in the gallery were instructed to get down between the seats and keep their heads down. Some people followed directions; some didn’t. One congressman shouted to no one in particular that this was the fault of the Republican members.
The officers inside with us didn’t seem to know what was going on in the hallway on the other side of the locked doors. There was a range of emotion from the members of Congress huddled around me. Some were clearly angry, some stunned. Some were scared and breathing hard. Others displayed a take-charge attitude, trying to help the police or calm those who were clearly overwhelmed with the situation. I remember one person instructing colleagues to take their congressional pins off their jackets in case they encountered protesters so they wouldn’t be identifiable as a member of Congress.
Others were on their phones — some texting, some talking, some recording video. My phone was buzzing nonstop in my pocket. I pulled it out and set in on the floor, and between photographs I could see dozens of texts from family and friends. They knew more about what was happening than I did. I put down my camera quickly and picked up my phone long enough to write, “I’m ok,” to a group chat I keep with my extended family and my wife of just four months. I remember the concern that my wife had for me, and for a few moments, I could feel my own emotions welling up and beginning to overtake me.
The floor below was now completely evacuated. Debris and trash were strewn everywhere. Across the room I could see members of the media had been pushed to the exit as the doors out to the hall began to be unlocked, and police told everyone to get up and leave the room as fast as they could. A security guard screamed at my coworker, AP photojournalist Scott Applewhite, to get up and leave the room.
Scotty has worked all over the world as a photographer for the AP and has been a fixture on Capitol Hill for as long as just about anyone in D.C. can remember. I don’t say this lightly — everyone knows him. He’s one of the hardest-working, nicest people in D.C.
As the room emptied out, Scotty didn’t budge, sitting all alone with his camera pointed at the standoff at the center door, shooting photos of the people trying to break in.
Hours later, I was able to get back into my office and found my laptop and bags just as I had left them. Congress still had hours of work ahead to finish the certification of the presidential election.
Sometime past midnight I took my cameras and walked around the building. The marble floor, usually pristine, was covered with a slippery powder, likely the result of spent chemical fire extinguishers and other debris. Trash, used gas masks, personal belongings and broken furniture littered the floor throughout the building. Windows were broken; some openings were boarded up. At one of the entrances, a cloth banner in bright red with the word “Treason” lay on the ground.
I found Rep. Andy Kim, a Democrat from New Jersey, cleaning up trash in the Rotunda. Heavily armed police officers working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began to help him. The images of him alone, quietly cleaning the building, were picked up by many publications in the days after and got a lot of attention. Artists and children around the country made art based on the photographs of Kim, and the Smithsonian Institution asked him to donate the suit he was wearing that day to the museum as part of its permanent collection.
At 3:40 a.m. Thursday, Congress formally confirmed Biden’s election win, and we all packed up and went home. I came home, showered, kissed my wife and did an interview with the BBC for their morning news radio program while sitting in bed. Sometime after 5 a.m., I hung up the phone and fell back into bed.
One of the most common questions I get about my experience is how I was feeling through all of this. Was I scared? Am I mad? Who do I blame for what happened?
It must be said, I experienced none of the violence that police officers and members of the media experienced outside the building. I was lucky that I was thrust into this protective bubble with the members of Congress. This job has always been to document what happens in front of me without bias, and I remember that going through my mind as I pushed emotion aside and documented the day.
When I think about the experience now, almost a year later, I think the thing that stays with me is the “what if” questions. Things could have easily gone a different way and more people could have been hurt.
For those of us who were there that day, and many watching across the country and the world, we have all been changed forever by the experience.