Thursday, January 6, 2022A Nat Geo photojournalist re-lives his frightening hours last Jan. 6 at the Capitol with the mob that injured police to try to stop America’s peaceful transfer of power.
By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences
National Geographic photographer Louie Palu was in the Capitol a year ago today when a mob supporting President Donald Trump turned violent, storming the building, overwhelming police, and breaking into offices and the Senate chambers.
“I felt like it was such an important moment, to make sure there was a record of this,” Louie told Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg at the time.
Caught in the middle of the crowd and chaos, putting aside his personal safety, he turned on his GoPro video camera to record the clashes with police and the protesters, many armed, who Louie said “were like shock troops” (pictured above). The resulting video thrusts you into a scene that some Americans thought would never—and could never—happen in the country.
A longtime veteran of covering conflict, Louie, a Nat Geo Explorer, thought he was getting out of that line of work. But fascinated by Trump’s impeachment and trial, he took on a two-year project, turning his eye on Washington. “It was an extraordinary, historic moment, only the third impeachment in U.S. history, and I wanted to witness it,” he recalls. (Below, a Capitol aide adjusts U.S. flags after the December 2019 impeachment vote.)
Over the next two years, Louie photographed two impeachments, a pandemic, civil unrest, lockdowns, and an attack on democracy. The result is an extraordinary project that documents Trump’s presidency and its aftermath—and provides critical, unparalleled context.
Louie’s decision to use black-and-white film is indicative of his approach: careful, thoughtful, slow journalism. This choice, together with his use of flash, gives the pictures a feeling of courtroom evidence. He makes surprising compositions of key players and events, capturing many important figures, on both sides of the aisle, in between the “podium moments.”
A series of video clips puts viewers on the ground, as Louie weaves through the barricaded, ghost-like streets of Washington, or in the moment—at times quite heated moments. But it is the GoPro footage from the insurrection that captures this raw reality best.
Louie’s extraordinary project captures the strains on the American political system that threaten the country’s cohesion and its democracy—and will reverberate for years to come. Here are several images below from Louie’s project on the road to violence:
Around the podium: After the 2019 vote to impeach Trump, Ashley Etienne, then communications director for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, consults with her at a news conference. Among those who spoke were Representatives Adam Schiff, chairman of the Judiciary Committee (center), and Carolyn B. Maloney, chairwoman of the Oversight and Reform Committee (at right).
The pressure of COVID-19: In September 2020, a security detail escorts Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (carrying a cell phone and folder) through the Capitol after he met Pelosi to negotiate a plan to boost the coronavirus-hobbled economy.
Early trouble: Members of the far-right, neo-fascist Proud Boys parade on November 14 during the “Million MAGA March,” challenging Biden’s victory in the election. The president had notably raised the fringe group’s profile when he declined to condemn its actions in a presidential debate. Instead, he said, “Stand back and stand by.” The group embraced his words as a slogan.
Building misinformation: A little more than two weeks after Trump lost the election, Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, leaves the Republican National Committee. With no evidence, the former New York mayor accused Democrats of “a massive attack on the integrity of the voting system.” Despite bipartisan affirmation of the elections, some Americans believed the misinformation spread by Giuliani and others.
Crime and punishment: Ejected from the Capitol on Jan. 6, an elated Trump supporter pumps his first. At an earlier rally on the Ellipse, Trump told the crowd that he’d won the election by a landslide and encouraged his supporters to take bold action. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he said. “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.” More than 725 people have been arrested in the attack, 75 of them charged with using dangerous weapons or causing serious bodily harm to police officers. At least 140 police officers were injured. (Below, a National Guard officer stands guard behind a fence that had been erected around the Capitol after the attack.)