On January 6, 2021, a Black photographer had planned to take a few photos at Donald Trump‘s rally, what happened that day instead has been seared into the lens of the American conscious.
“In no way, shape or fashion did I expect people to do what they did that day,” photographer Mel D. Cole told NBC News. “Some people got in [to the Capitol], there were fights, there was craziness. It was the craziest day of my life.”
Cole, who had only recently transitioned from music photography to capturing American political protests, said he felt a sense of panic come over him as rioters made their way from Trump’s speech to the Capitol.
The 45-year-old was among about five photographers and one of only a handful of Black people –– who he believes were Trump supporters –– present as thousands stormed the US Capitol, waving Confederate flags and other symbols of white supremacy.
Cole said he knew he had to leave the area when he witnessed Capitol police officers struggling to control the crowd with pepper spray and flash-bang grenades.
Cole said he went home, shed tears, danced, and shared his experience on Instagram –– anything he could to lift his spirits after witnessing such a “traumatic scene.”
“It wasn’t therapy in the sense of what therapy is. But, for me, it was therapeutic hearing people tell me I’m loved and that what I’m doing is amazing,” Cole said. “It kept me motivated.”
Before attending the January 6 riot, Cole spent 2020 capturing the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd. Before that, the Syracuse native had a decades-long career as a music photographer, snapping photos of legendary acts including The Roots, Snoop Dogg, SZA, Kid Cudi, and more.
He compiled his work over the last two years into a book, American Protests: Photographs 2020-2021.
“To put out this body of work, it was emotional to relive all the stuff I had been through, trying to pick out the best of some crazy stuff,” Cole said. “It was difficult at times to look back. For me, to get those photos out there, it’s history. It’s something I want to be around forever to be studied. It’s an important part of history.”