January 12, 2021

Days after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building, Leah Millis was still trying to grasp all that she saw.

The Washington, D.C.-based senior photojournalist for Reuters was outside the Capitol as the rioting began. Millis watched as rioters clashed with and fought police. By the time she left, she was drenched in chemicals from having been pepper-sprayed. By Friday, Millis still had not looked at all the work she produced.

“I don’t think I’ve processed it at all,” the photojournalist told Poynter late last week. “I have a lot of colleagues who were out there. I’m really thankful for them. I think we did our best to watch each other’s backs, but I had colleagues and friends who were attacked. I think, on top of what I witnessed and what we went through, it’s processing that and processing what could have happened … I guess we are lucky that nobody died.”

Reporters and photojournalists assigned to cover the Electoral College vote count found themselves thrust into a riot against Congress, and found themselves attacked as well. Rioters destroyed camera gear, assaulted journalists and hurled insults at them. “Murder the media” was carved into a door in the Capitol building. Millis and Julio Cortez, a photographer with The Associated Press, spoke to Poynter about what they experienced and witnessed.

Around 1 p.m. Wednesday, Millis received a text message from a colleague about a crowd trying to break through the fence on the west side of the Capitol building. Assigned to cover the Capitol, the photojournalist ran to the scene because she was concerned police would put a barricade up soon. There, Millis put on her gas mask and ballistic helmet. She saw a crowd clashing with a thin police line that was struggling to hold protestors back. Some people had already climbed onto some scaffolding that was set up for big events.

Millis saw police pepper-spray people, and some in the crowd pepper-spray officers. Some protestors threw objects at the police, like pieces of metal.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen clashes between civilians and police to this extent, where there are very large objects getting thrown and chemical irritants being used on the police officers. … I don’t think I’ve ever seen that sustained for so long,” Millis said. “There were some flash-bangs on the other side of the crowd that would go off occasionally, and the crowd would cheer.”

A photo Millis took of a flash-bang deployed outside a Capitol building surrounded by throngs of rioters received high praise on social media. That image came much later. Millis later found out that a large group did break into the west side of the Capitol.

Millis said she also climbed scaffolding, which allowed her to see more and take those images of the Capitol seemingly lit up by the flash-bang, as well as another eerie, grey photo from the scene. She didn’t have cellphone service for much of that time and recalled suddenly receiving a flood of messages.

“I had heard people yelling about someone getting shot inside, and I didn’t believe it,” Millis said. “I was getting tons and tons of messages from people, like, ‘Are you OK?’ I was like, ‘What is going on?’”

Millis didn’t yet know all that happened inside the Capitol.

“I’ve photographed protests and violent scenes before that have evolved into complete chaos, but what made this so extraordinary was where it was. It was at the U.S. Capitol,” she said. “To me, it was really important to show the context of where everybody was. I was constantly thinking about that in my head.”

Read also: Reporters covering the Capitol attack were used to harassment and heckling. But Wednesday was different.

Cortez, one of several AP photojournalists working in the area last Wednesday, saw his colleague, John Minchillo, get attacked by Trump supporters who accused him of being a member of antifa. He and Minchillo were on assignment covering the president’s rally at the Ellipse, just south of the White House.

“My job was to get him to safety, to be some sort of padding between him and the protestors. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t dragged into … there’s nothing worse than having two photographers being beaten and nobody else to help,” Cortez said. “I am trying to go around, to kind of come from a different angle and try to help. I feel like if I would have run up to try to grab him, I was just going to become part of that situation.”

Cortez captured the chaotic scene on his GoPro and posted it to Instagram. The video shows Minchillo being pushed around and insulted. In the caption, Cortez wrote that one person can be heard threatening to kill Minchillo. Two men in the crowd helped remove the photojournalists from the immediate area. Cortez said he and Minchillo waited a bit and then got back to work.

“Once we were safe, we kept on working because essentially that’s what we’re there for,” Cortez said. “Our job is to make pictures.”

As of last Friday, Cortez said he has no idea how many photos he took that day, describing Wednesday as quite difficult because he and other photojournalists were in the middle of two groups trying to push each other. He also has no idea how many photos were used, though several of his were widely circulated late last week.

Cortez said he and his colleagues later made time to discuss what went right, and what went wrong. He said he’s developed a thick skin when it comes to people shouting at him. He said he’s proud of the work his team did, including his colleagues inside the Capitol.

“Long story short, we got the pictures that we needed, I believe,” he said.

This article has been updated to note that the group that was near Millis did break into the west side of the Capitol.

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
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