He Was Assigned to Photograph a Joint Session of Congress. The MAGA Mob Had Other Plans

Elizabeth Yuko
·23 min read

For the past 13 years, Saul Loeb, a Washington, D.C.-based staff photographer for the newswire service Agence France-Presse (AFP), has documented events at the White House and on Capitol Hill, in addition to traveling the world covering breaking news. This week, his schedule looked relatively standard — at least for him.

On Tuesday, January 5th, he was assigned to cover a Trump rally in Freedom Plaza, followed by the certification of the Electoral College votes by the joint session of Congress on Wednesday. The photos he took during that have become some of the most recognizable to come out of the attempted insurrection of the U.S. Capitol.

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What was the atmosphere like at the rally on Tuesday?
It was as normal a Trump rally as you can have. There was talk among the attendees that “Wednesday is our day.” But there didn’t appear to be any planning or discussion, beyond the speakers talking about how January 6th was the day to “take back the country,” “stop the steal” — all the usual Trump slogans.

And then how did you end up in the Capitol Building on Wednesday?
I was assigned to cover the inside of the Capitol, along with a couple of my colleagues. Basically, my entire responsibility was to cover the joint session and then any other events that were happening around that.

I got to the Capitol around 9 a.m. on Wednesday. It was pretty quiet there and the streets were mostly deserted. Walking in that morning, the security postures were the same as any typical day on Capitol Hill — which was a little surprising, given how many people were in town for the Trump rally, and knowing that they were going to come to the Hill. But at the time I didn’t really think anything of it. It didn’t strike me as strange, because that was the usual situation. But clearly something somewhere went pretty wrong.

Umm, yes. Then what happened once you were inside for the joint session?
A small group of photographers was allowed in the session for the first 20 minutes, or until the first objection to one of the states. We were there for maybe 15 minutes before there was an objection to the electors from Arizona. At that point, the joint session adjourned, and the House and Senate reconvened in their respective chambers. I moved from the House gallery — where I was photographing the joint session — over to the Senate side, where we have an office for photographers to work out of, where I continued to file my pictures.

When did you first realize something unusual was going on?
While I was in the photographers’ office, we started getting word that protesters were approaching the Capitol and had gotten onto the stands that were set up for the inauguration, and had taken over that area. So I left that photo area to try to find a window to see this, and photograph it from inside the building. I saw the people hanging off the stands, on top of the platforms and everything. And I thought, “OK, that’s certainly not something you would expect — and they clearly have breached some level of security outside,” because this was a secure area that was under construction, and they’ve now completely taken it over. But that was all I thought about it.

You weren’t concerned about the people in the secure area?
At that point I figured that they’re still outside the building. There was still space for the Capitol Police to stop the crowds from advancing. From there, I thought I’d just continue my day like I would normally. My assignment was [to photograph] inside, and I was worried that if I went out, I might not be able to get back in.

And so I went back to the photographers’ office, and while I was filing those pictures, a radio announcement came across throughout the Capitol complex, basically saying that there is a security situation on the Capitol campus and effectively, to shelter-in-place. Close your door, lock your door, stay in your office.

That was really the first inkling we had that something was a little different. I mean, a lockdown’s not terribly unusual, but they typically don’t tell you to shelter-in-place. And so you’re in a room full of photographers, but you can’t cover something if you’re stuck in a room. Eventually, a police officer came and closed the door on us and told us to stay there. Once they left, we did too — to see if we could figure out what was going on outside the room. We were on the third floor, and heard a commotion down on the second floor. We went down there, and right outside the door to the Senate chamber, saw about 12 or 15 protesters being confronted by about an equal number of Capitol police officers.

What was their interaction like?
The protesters were dressed in what were almost like costumes. Some of them had on face paint or body paint. There was one guy that wasn’t wearing a shirt and had what looked like a Viking helmet on. There were multiple people waving Trump flags, and a lot wearing MAGA hats. And there’s one protester that was waving around a giant Confederate flag.

And what were the police doing about these intruders?
The police were basically trying to defuse the situation. They were engaged with the protesters and trying to figure out what they wanted, where they were going, or where they wanted to go. And also, how to calm the situation down and get them out of the building. At that point, the members of the media there — we had no idea the extent of what was unfolding elsewhere in the building. We were outside the Senate floor, and to have this number of protesters in such a secure area is highly unusual. The protesters were shouting slogans and yelling “Where’s Pelosi? Where’s Pence? Where’s AOC?” The photographers who were there — we freely moved around and took pictures. The protesters didn’t care — in fact, often they would pose for pictures for us. They seemed happy and excited to be there.

Did you move around to other parts of the building?
Yes: I decided to go back upstairs to the third floor to get my laptop and backpack, because at that point I started thinking they might evacuate the entire building. So I grabbed my backpack and laptop, came back downstairs and started hearing chanting and commotion coming from the direction of the Rotunda. As I got closer, I saw what started as dozens of people, and quickly became hundreds of people, and from there, just kept growing and growing.

People were filing into the Rotunda from seemingly every direction. They were in there chanting “stop the steal,” and some other favorites. A lot of them were taking selfies. People were climbing all over the statues, all over the furniture, waving Trump flags, Confederate flags — just sort of mayhem. Throughout this time — after I left the area outside the Senate chamber — I saw very few police of any kind. There was probably a period when I was in the Rotunda for 15 minutes of this, and I didn’t see a single police officer. The protesters basically had complete control over that area.

And you continued to work through all of this?
Yes. We have the ability to send pictures to our editors straight from our cameras, so I was shooting as many as I could, just to get the pictures out as fast as I could. I didn’t really know how much people outside of here knew what was going on, and so it was important to get those photos out to all of our clients as quickly as possible.

After working for a while, I decided to try to get back towards the Senate side. But then as I turned towards the hallway leading back to the Senate chamber, I saw people running back towards the Rotunda — towards me — coughing, wheezing. There was a thick smoke in the air. It’s clear that they fired tear gas or some sort of chemical irritant to try to get people to disperse. Obviously I wasn’t going to go that way, so I tried to get to the House side, via Statuary Hall. But there is a similar scene of thick smoke in the air in the hall leading to the House chamber — people coming out, a lot of people with cell phones in their hands, coughing and trying to cover their eyes.

At that point, I figured that the situation is deteriorating. I was worried about getting caught in the middle of the Rotunda. I didn’t want to be tear gassed. I had colleagues on the outside that had been carrying gas masks and body protection, but I didn’t have anything. I planned to be safely inside the building with just lawmakers, just like any other day.

Did you experience any of the effects of the tear gas?
Yeah, definitely. You know, you start feeling it in your throat, start coughing a little bit, your eyes get all red. I was already wearing a mask for Covid reasons, so I think that certainly helped a bit. The vast majority of the people in there were not wearing masks of any kind, and they were running into the thick of it. I tried not to get directly affected by the tear gas as much as I could, because it takes you out. You can’t work anymore. And I’ve got to keep working.

And where did you go from there?
I worked my way through the building, and eventually ended up near Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s offices. I saw some of the protesters going towards her offices, so I followed them. In the first office, there were three protesters just sitting there — one at one of the staffers’ desks. I think it was a woman. She had on a “Keep America Great” red hat, and appeared to be vaping. She was rummaging through the top of the desk, looking at the computer.

People were going through drawers — there are mementos, there are files, all kinds of stuff in there. There were maybe a dozen or so protesters going through her office. This is the office of the Speaker of the House! She’s third in line for the presidency, and this is normally a pretty tough place to get into.

So I kept going through the office, and eventually came across this guy sitting at one of the staffers’ desks with his feet up. He’s pretty jovial, and looking through some of the papers on the desk. The staffers that had been in there earlier had left in such a hurry that there were still emails open on their computers. People had left their cell phones on their desks. It was clear that whoever had left was in a big hurry and probably scared, and wanted to get out as fast as they could. But now these guys are in there, treating it as if it were their home. It was a pretty jarring sight to see.

It’s hard to even imagine that.
It was crazy enough to see large numbers of protesters in the Rotunda and throughout the Capitol, but to see them in her office and realize how big this breach was, and how out of control it was, and how Capitol Police have totally lost control of the situation. It was just wild.

That doesn’t sound ideal. Did you stick around the offices?
I met up with another photographer — Jim Lo Scalzo of European Pressphoto Agency — and we decided that we needed to find a way out of there. The situation continued to be pretty unpredictable. We still didn’t know which way this is going to go, or why all these people were in there. Are they sort-of like “sightseeing protesters”? Or did they come here to do harm or take hostages? You just don’t know. But just being with another photographer made it seem safer — having someone to watch your back.

So we went towards the offices on the Senate side — hoping that’s a safer place to be, away from the action. On the way there, we went down a hallway and heard a bunch of people approaching. They turned the corner, and it’s some sort of police SWAT unit with their automatic weapons drawn, yelling at us to freeze and put our hands up. We show them our credentials, and they ask where we’re trying to go. And so we asked “Where should we go? What should we do?”

The police said not to go outside, and to find somewhere to shelter-in-place. So we got on a hidden elevator and took it up to the third floor. We figured it would be much quieter because it’s a hard place to get to, even for a staffer that works there. It’s a maze of tunnels and passageways.

Once we were up there, we ran into another colleague of ours. She had just escaped an attack from Trump supporters near the Rotunda, where they shoved her to the ground and took her cameras and credentials before she was able to get away. The three of us locked ourselves inside another staffer’s office. Luckily we had power, there was a bathroom — which was great — and we hung out there for about 30 or 40 minutes, trying to stay quiet. Then we heard another group coming down the hallway, and at that point, we don’t know if they’re protesters or the police.

We hear them trying to open our door — which is locked — and then they start pounding on the door yelling: “Police! Police! Blue! Blue! Is anybody in there?” So we tell them that there are three people in there, and they respond with “Open this door! Open this door! Put your hands up! Put your hands up!”

So we unlocked the door, we put our hands up, they come in — it’s another SWAT team of some kind, pointing their weapons at us. Once they see that we’re press and have the credentials we need to be in the building, they ask if we’re OK and where we’re trying to go. Again, we ask them where we should be, and where we should go. The police said that we were in the safest place we could be right now, and to stay there and lock the door — but to open it if more police come. They did — about 10 minutes later — and it’s basically the same drill again. But this time they said that they were taking us to a secure location where we could stay while they cleared the building. So that’s what we do.

The police escorted us through the tunnels to this other secure location on Capitol Hill, where we waited for about three hours. Then, around 7 or 7:30 p.m., we get word that the Capitol building has been cleared and is now secured, and that the lawmakers planned to resume their sessions from that morning. Shortly after 8, we go back — with the stench of tear gas still in the air in the tunnels, and slippery floors from everything that had been sprayed on the ground. We made it back to the House for the joint session and photographed it, like we planned to in the morning. Then finally, around 3 a.m., Vice President Pence announced that Joe Biden had won the election and had been certified a president, gaveled out, and that was it.

Wow. And then your usual 3 a.m. post-coup commute, I guess?
It was quite the day.

Aside from when there was a SWAT team pointing guns at you, were you scared while this was all going on?
It was pretty surreal. Obviously, you’re concentrating on working, so it’s hard to take in what’s actually happening. You go on autopilot and work as quickly as possible, while trying to be as safe as possible. You’re always watching your back. You’re always trying to be hyper-aware of your surroundings.

I mean, it’s an unruly mob, and you’re in the middle of it taking pictures. And you’re already dealing with a group of protesters that hate the media. So here you are, a member of the media, completely unprotected in the middle of everything, taking pictures of people’s faces. I was very fortunate that I didn’t really have a problem — other than people yelling “fake news” and things like that at me. But I have colleagues that ran into trouble and got assaulted and got beat [up].

I had a job to do and that’s what I concentrated on. The whole thing felt like you’re living a movie. You know — there’s all these crazy action movies where terrorists or whoever take over some government building and have demands. That’s what we were living. It was surreal and disturbing and hectic and crazy — just a wild scene.

Did you fear for your life at any point?
No, I don’t think so. Certainly, any time anyone points a weapon at you, your heart skips a beat — and you never want to be on the other end of a SWAT team. But the adrenaline kicks in, and that moment passes pretty quickly.

I don’t think I noticed any protesters with weapons. Looking back on it, I probably should have been a little bit more worried that that was a possibility. You’re just working, and so you don’t really think through all the scenarios that could be unfolding in front of you. So at the time, I wasn’t really worried.

But my family was worried — my phone was blowing up with text messages. People were watching this on TV and seeing these reports that the Capitol has been totally breached. And from what I understand, there was very little information coming from inside the building, going to the TV networks. They just knew that there was a mob inside the building. But other than that, no one really knew what was going on.

That’s true — we didn’t. And as I watched it live, in addition to worrying about the violent mob, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of those maskless people indoors, and how the people sheltering-in-place were huddled so close together — I mean, for very good reason. Were you worried about Covid-19 during any of this? Or was that so far down the list of concerns at that point?
I actually had Covid in August, so that lessened my concern, because I should still have antibodies. But as you can see from pictures, people were definitely crowded into lots of tiny spaces and huddled together. Some staffers crammed as many people into an elevator as possible. That’s not exactly Covid-friendly, but that’s what they had to do. The vast majority of the protesters were not wearing masks — they didn’t seem particularly worried about Covid.

That was pretty evident. And looking at some of your photos, many of them looked like they were having a great day out and truly enjoying themselves.
Yeah, I think there were a couple different groups of people. There were the sightseeing protesters, that maybe weren’t the first group that breached the walls, but wandered in when the doors were open and were like, “Wow, this is the Capitol. Look at these paintings!” in awe of where they were and how they got there. They were taking selfies and doing live social media video feeds and taking pictures of each other. And then you had the groups that were trying to create havoc. There were definitely different dynamics.

I saw one picture from a photographer from another wire service — it must have been from pretty early in the breach when there weren’t many people in the building yet. There are normally stanchions lined up in the Rotunda and Statuary Hall — like during normal times before Covid — for when tour groups would walk through. But now it just sort of keeps people in the center of the room. And yesterday, a group of protesters were adhering to the stanchions — just like a regular tour group walking through. It was bizarre that even though they were in the building illegally and had breached security, they still felt like, “OK, let’s stay within the stanchions.”

Did you end up interacting with any of them?
Yes, I talked a little bit with that guy — Richard Barnett — who was in Speaker Pelosi’s office with his feet up. He gave us his name while we were there, which was like “OK, great. Thanks for your name!” He talked with us briefly, and didn’t mind us taking his picture at all. In fact, he held up the envelope showing he was in Pelosi’s office so we could photograph it. He was just happy to be there.

So, one photo that has been used a lot — including alongside an article that ran in Rolling Stone — was the one with the devil fox guy, the shirtless man with the face paint, flanked by other people and their flags. What was going on there?
That was the first group I encountered — it was jarring to see. I’ve covered a lot of Trump rallies over the last five years, and there’s often people wearing all sorts of outfits at them. So it’s not unusual to see something like that from them. It’s definitely unusual to see something like that inside the United States Capitol.

That seems like a fair assessment.
It was all highly unusual. They seemed to have complete control of the first and second floors of the building. Some of those guys got to the Senate floor. It was like, “What’s happening? This is crazy. Where’s the police?”

Were you anywhere near the woman who was shot?
I don’t believe so. I didn’t know anything about that until we got up to that office where we were sheltering, when my wife texted me and said that there were shots fired.

What do you think was your most iconic shot of the day?
I think the two photos that resonated the most with people were the ones from Speaker Pelosi’s office: the one of the woman in the red hat vaping at the desk, and then the guy with his feet up. I think those showed how serious the situation became — you know, having completely unfettered access to the third-highest-ranking government official’s office. That’s not something you’d ever expect in the United States. Once I moved those photos to the wire and they started circulating, I think people were shocked and amazed at what was happening.

And there’s another photo that sticks out to me, where there’s a guy standing on top of a statue of Gerald Ford in the Rotunda. He put a MAGA hat on top of the statue and also had the statue hold a Trump flag. The guy’s standing on there screaming — like, super happy screaming. And these are the halls of Congress. This is the Rotunda. This is a sacred space where presidents lie in state, and this is what’s going on here now.

Were there any shots that you wish you would have gotten, but didn’t?
Of course. Anytime you have a situation like this, you rethink all your steps and how you could have done things differently or better, and all the decisions you made. It’s natural as a photographer. You always want to get better and learn from every experience. Some of my colleagues had amazing photos from inside the House chamber of the police with their guns drawn, protecting the chamber. You always wonder “Did I make the right decisions? Was I in the right place? Should I have gone to a different place?” But in the heat of the moment it’s chaotic, and you want to stay safe. You can only do what you can do and a lot of it is just luck — where you end up happening to be.

I have plenty of colleagues that got locked in small workspaces or closets where they were stuck for five hours and couldn’t take any pictures. It’s completely luck of the draw where you end up in a situation like this. Thankfully, I at least was able to move around and get some photos out that seemed to resonate with people.

Absolutely. Were there any moments where you hesitated and decided not to shoot something?
I mean, I would have loved to have gotten some pictures of the SWAT teams clearing the floors. But I also was not going to make any sudden movements. So that’s one of those decisions when I realized “OK, I can live without that picture, but it’ll be seared in my mind.” I won’t be able to share it with everyone around the world, but I’ll remember it, certainly.

After you were sheltering in the tunnel for a few hours, what was it like transitioning back to the joint session? What was the atmosphere like? On TV, other than some members of Congress mentioning it in their speeches, everything seemed so normal, considering the Capitol had just been attacked.
I think that’s the right word for it. Normalcy returned very quickly, which was clearly their intent. That’s why they resumed the session in the House chamber when they could have resumed it somewhere else. I think that was clearly purposeful. Just walking through the Capitol to get back there from our other location, we saw broken glass, broken doors, stuff that’s shattered. There’s blood on the floor. The floors are slippery in a lot of places because of the tear gas residue.

Then walking through the Capitol, you could see that things were returning to normal because the government had returned to normal, but the building still had remnants of what just happened. But from around 8 p.m. when we got back to the Capitol, to when things wrapped up almost eight hours later and I left for the night, it seemed like everything was back to normal. Like, “Wow. That happened, but it’s over and we’ve moved past it and everything’s back to business now.”

That had to be one of the weirdest days.
The only day that might compare to this was when I went on a secret trip to Iraq and Afghanistan with George W. Bush. It was a 46-hour jaunt that nobody knew about. And while we were in Baghdad, Bush was holding a press conference in one of Saddam’s old palaces with the Iraqi Prime Minister, and one of the Iraqi journalists stood up and threw his shoes at Bush.

You were there for that?!
Yeah. It was already crazy being secretly ushered out of Washington in the middle of the night in like a darked-out plane and not being able to tell anyone where I was going. And then to have this guy throw shoes at the president? That was one of those weird days, also. But this one certainly tops that.

Correction: Due to a transcription error, this interview previously stated that Loeb was in the Rotunda for 50 minutes. He was there for 15 minutes.

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