In three public hearings so far, the House committee tasked with investigating the events of Jan. 6, 2021, has decisively shown that Donald Trump and his confederates attempted a coup to end American democracy and the rule of law. The scope of their plot was nationwide, sophisticated and premeditated, and violent. As became clear during last Thursday’s hearing, Trump’s refusal to accept defeat was so extreme that he encouraged or celebrated the murderous rage of his followers on Jan. 6 as they attempted to hunt and in all likelihood kill Vice President Mike Pence to prevent him from certifying the Electoral College votes.
Trump and his confederates certainly knew that their attempt to nullify the election results could result in widespread civil unrest. That was seen not as an obstacle but rather as an opportunity: Street violence might have provided Trump a pretext for invoking the Insurrection Act and declaring martial law as a means of remaining in power indefinitely.
In many respects, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Trump’s followers was the most extensively documented crime in American history. David Butow, one of America’s leading photojournalists, was there that day. His work has been featured by Time magazine, CNN, Politico, NBC, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, the New York Times, National Geographic, and other leading news outlets and publications.
In his 30-year career, Butow has also traveled the world covering conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Burma and Iraq. He explores the events he witnessed at the U.S. Capitol on that fateful January day — and the forces unleashed by a broken America that fueled Donald Trump’s rise to power — in his new book of photographs “Brink.”
In this conversation, Butow reflects on what it was like to experience one of the worst moments in American history, and how the House Jan. 6 hearings serve as a traumatic reminder of that day. He also talks about documenting the rise of Trumpism across the United States, from a type of personality cult in 2016 into a violent anti-democratic force that attempted to bring down democracy.
Butow warns that the U.S. is divided against itself and on the precipice of disaster because shared democratic norms and values, and even a basic understanding of reality, no longer seem to exist among a wide swath of the public. He also recounts his recent experience documenting the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and what that reveals about a society so sick with gun violence that mass murder has become a type of cultural norm and familiar ritual.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How do you make sense of this moment in America in the wake of Jan. 6, with ascendant fascism, democracy in crisis and all the other calamities and challenges we face?
I’m really concerned, for the first time in my life, about our government and the future of the country. I’m generally optimistic. For all its flaws, our government does a good job on a basic level. For example, most people who are election officials generally rise above party interests. When it comes down to the real stuff, such as counting votes and things of that nature, most people, I think, are pretty honest. But now I’m less confident of that. I’m really concerned with the way things might play out for the country’s future.
Some of us tried to warn the public that Donald Trump would win in 2016 and that his presidency would be a disaster for the country. We were labeled as being hysterical or crazy, and told that we suffered from “Trump derangement syndrome.” What did the the mainstream news media and larger political class miss? Why were they, and are they, in such denial about reality? What happened on Jan. 6, 2021, is not going away.
That is a function of the class divisions in this country, in terms of how people understand the situation. People who interact with a much broader swath of society have a much better sense of what’s happening on the ground. That cuts across racial lines and geographical lines.
One of my colleagues, Mark Peterson, started tracking the rise of the Trump movement years ago, well before 2016. People who are interacting more with blue-collar white people in rural areas had a much better sense of the undercurrents of Jan. 6 and all the discontent brewing out there in certain parts of the country. That’s why a lot of the elites missed it all. They just don’t circulate in that crowd. In addition, there is a polite way of talking about some of the ugly truths about this country, where such things are not publicly spoken of in a clear and direct way by the country’s elites. Or they just don’t see it, and don’t talk about it.
What are your general thoughts on the House Jan. 6 hearings so far? How are you managing your feelings and emotions given that you were at the Capitol that day?
I’m very glad they’re happening, and they seem to be followed by several million people at least. So it’s not getting buried, even though most Republicans in Congress would like to see that. The committee is slowly building a damning case against Trump and some of the people around him. It’s still hard to believe what happened. I thought the first day was pretty dramatic, mainly because of the footage. In fact, the sound of the crowd and the fighting is probably the most visceral memory I have, and hearing it is just as stressful as watching it.
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Thinking about the day can stress me out, not so much because I felt physically threatened but because the level and type of violence was so unexpected. I always used to tell people that even though there was political chaos during the Trump years, superficially it was hard to tell because of protocol, and that was, in a way, comforting. But all that got dashed in the first few moments of my exposure to the Jan. 6 attack.
How are the hearings and the other public information about Trump’s coup attempt, and how close it came to succeeding, coloring your understanding of what you personally witnessed?
With the passage of time and the new information, it becomes more clear that Jan. 6 was part of a coordinated plan that started from the Oval Office. You’re seeing thousands of ordinary citizens acting in a violent way, but that is just the manifestation of those plans. That wasn’t evident to me on the day itself or in the subsequent weeks. Initially I thought of it mainly as a riot, which implies a certain amount of spontaneity. But Jan. 6 was an attempted putsch, plain and simple, and that fact elevates its significance and makes the event, in hindsight, both more frightening and unbelievable.
A year before Jan. 6, I saw Bill Barr laughing and applauding while Trump gloated through a self-indulgent monologue. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen as a photographer.
Another aspect of understanding is revealed is the testimony of those who were around Trump when all this was happening. I’ll use Trump’s attorney general, Bill Barr, as an example. A year before Jan. 6 I was in the East Room of the White House when Trump took his victory lap after he was acquitted in the first impeachment trial. Most of his cabinet was there, Bill Barr being one of them. Barr is a smart guy, but I watched him laughing and applauding along with everyone else in that room while Trump gloated his way through that self-indulgent monologue. As I was leaving the event I turned to a fellow photographer and said it was one of the worst things I’d ever seen as a photographer.
The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol is apparently the most documented crime scene in U.S. history. Considering the photographic and video record of that day’s events — including your work — what do you “see” in those images now that you may have not have comprehended at the time?
There is so much imagery, and it’s very raw and compelling and the evidence is unimpeachable. That alone is an amazing and very contemporary thing, everything from the professional coverage to the surveillance footage and bodycam images. I only saw a tiny fraction of everything that went on, particularly from inside the Capitol. I didn’t make it into the building until it was basically over. Most of the time I was out on the west steps in the middle of the crowd. The imagery to me is very scary, in terms of what it shows of the day itself, and about the state of the country then and now.
Most of my memory of Jan. 6 is a blur, literally and metaphorically. My impressions of the day are very broad and not specific, in the sense that I remember only the basics of where I was and when. I look through my unedited set of pictures for reference, but most frames are just chaotic, and not in a good way: My view is blocked, the pictures are out of focus, etc. It was very difficult to photograph.
When I watch videos, I see things that I wish I’d gotten in pictures and ways I might have moved around the scene. A few pictures came together that are pretty good and they made it into the book. It was one of the worst things I’ve seen in my decades of doing this job, but in the somewhat paradoxical aspect of the profession, I am beyond grateful I was there. The event seems even more significant with the passage of time and if I’d missed it, I don’t think I would have published “Brink.”
In “Brink” you document the rage and pain and overall emotional life of this broken America. How did that crystallize into Trumpism?
I didn’t really experience the rage until Jan. 6, 2021. I was aware of the energy coming from the Trump supporters. At first, I did not really interpret it as rage. I interpreted it more as just sort of loving his personality. At Trump’s rallies, I would hear people say, “Donald Trump isn’t my God, but he is my president.” Why would you even need to say that? Why would you even think to say something like that? This is like a religious cult. These are the same dynamics that are at play with the Trump movement now and what is happening after Jan. 6.
Did you feel something in the air on Jan. 6? Some intangible sense that something “historical” was about to happen?
At first, I didn’t know that I was going to see something historical, but I did have a sense, once that date was on the calendar, a couple of weeks ahead of time, that it could turn into a big deal. But I didn’t know what kind of shape Jan. 6 was going to take. I was prepared for it. I had exercised. I went jogging. It was almost like preparing for some kind of athletic competition.
But in the morning when that crowd had gathered on the mall for Trump’s speech, I could tell that there was a weird energy and the crowd was hyped up in a way that they hadn’t been for the two previous rallies. So at that point, I was feeling like something might really kick off, but I just didn’t know what that was going to be. I spent about 45 minutes with the crowd that morning. Then I took the subway to the Capitol just to be there when the crowd arrived, and everything went down.
As that attack took place, how did you decide what to photograph? Where does that skill come from?
In my best moments, it’s like when an athlete gets into what they call the flow state and being in the zone. On Jan. 6, it was actually very hard to get to that state of mind and energy because, just watching the whole thing unfold, it was so unexpected. I was not ready for the level of violence from the crowd that was directed at the police. It was very hard to switch back on the psychological and physical muscle memory I had developed from years of covering conflict and other tense situations.
Jan. 6 felt like some kind of one-off. It absolutely felt like I was watching something that I had never seen before, and it did feel historical. There were times when I was in the middle of that crowd, but I just couldn’t move around in the crowd in the way that I normally would.
Were you afraid?
Yes. I was afraid in some of the same ways that I’m normally afraid when I’m covering something where there’s violence and things are flying around and people in the crowd are pushing barricades and you think you might get knocked down. The added element on this one was that I was afraid of people in the crowd. Many of the Trump followers don’t have any idea what the independent media is. To them, you’re either with them or you’re against them. There were people during that day that asked me who I was shooting for, and they’re trying to figure out, “Is this guy with us or against us?”
Fortunately, nothing happened to me. I had no physical altercations with anyone there. That was a concern, and it felt weirder late in the day. Once I realized that the crowd had breached the Capitol and that things had really gotten out of control at that level, then the National Guard started to show up and police in riot gear showed up late in the day, it just felt really tense. I felt outnumbered and I didn’t feel secure at all being there.
This was an attempt to end multiracial democracy. It was a white supremacist temper tantrum, a white rage attack on the very idea of Black and brown people having the same voting power and rights as white people. You were there. What were you feeling in terms of racial hostility?
The energy was very strong. I definitely think that’s a big component of it, without a doubt. I also think there were other people there who weren’t seeing it through a racial lens. I think, for them, they’re railing against “the establishment.” There were some people of color there — not very many, but some. I saw them at other Trump rallies too. For them it has got to be about something else.
I feel like the Trump followers were not protesting against minorities per se. My instinct is that they are protesting against the “liberal establishment” or something like that, who they see as facilitating some kind of change that’s going to take power away from people like them.
You were just in Uvalde, and your work there was featured in Time magazine and the New York Times. In “Brink” you document how broken America is in the Age of Trump. How does the massacre in Uvalde fit into that larger narrative?
Last year I was in South Texas on assignment, and I saw a guy outside the hotel wearing a T-shirt with a picture of an AR-15. It said something to the effect of “I oil my rifle with the tears of liberals.” A couple of years later, a teenager from a nearby town selects the AR-15 — as have most recent mass murderers in the U.S. — to kill children. The point is that what should be a matter of public safety, and you know, the lives of American children, has been completely politicized. It’s part of the us-versus-them dynamic. The disparate response to COVID-19 is another example.
What were you trying to convey with your photos in the aftermath of that tragedy?
Before I went to Uvalde, I had to look up the year of the Columbine shooting, which was 1999, because I went there, too. In fact, I came across a picture online that I’d taken at a school shooting in Oregon a year before Columbine. I had completely forgotten about it. The clothes and the hairstyles were dated, but the flowers and balloons and stuffed animals were all there.
We do not see the results of a mass shooting. The imagery of the event is beyond sanitized: We see not the destroyed bodies but the positive, heartfelt response, which has become routine.
While I was in Uvalde, I saw those same icons and I thought: This has become an American ritual. It’s like everyone knows what to do immediately after. I was treating my photographs not as coverage of a school shooting, but as reflections of the aftermath of a school shooting. The results of the shooting itself, we do not see. In a way, the imagery of the event is beyond sanitized because we’re seeing not the destroyed bodies but rather the positive, heartfelt response of the community, and even a visit from the president, which has become routine.
I also included the media in a lot of my photographs because most Americans view the event through the lens of what they see through television and online, and that fuels the debate about gun policy. Along with the police lines and the memorials, the TV crews take over the scene in their own way, and then a week later they’re packed up and out of there. The national discussion wanes, the flowers fade and there’s almost a fatalistic attitude about the whole thing. You do, however, see the continuing efforts of people like David Hogg and Gabby Giffords, who are working hard for sensible gun policies, I hope they have some success.
Columbine, Jan. 6, Uvalde, Orlando, the rise of Trumpism. What is the America you have been documenting? Where do we go from here?
I have not always set out to show specifically how balkanized the U.S. is, but that dynamic has shown up in many of the subjects I’ve covered. I do get the chance to weave in and out of different groups. I enjoy that, it’s interesting, and I like seeing and hearing both sides without the filters. During 2020 I covered BLM protests as well as Trump’s crowd, sometimes in the same space. The two sides are beyond suspicious of each other. They regard the other side as an existential threat to themselves and to the country.
It’s very disheartening. I was a political science major in college, I believe in the idea of organizing a society for the collective good. Not socialism, but around the rule of law, common ground. But these days, there are vastly different attitudes about what that means, and there seems to be much less of a sense of national ambition than when I was a kid.
These days, because of social media and the balkanized media in general, the edges of both sides are the loudest voices and each side is reacting to those extreme views. There are a lot of people who have more nuanced, centrist views but it’s tough for them to find space in the current political dialogue and in policy making.
What does it mean to be “American” right now?
That is an existential question. As far as the country goes. I don’t think there is an “America.” When you think about Obama’s speech in 2004, he said, “There is no red America or blue America.” That was so hopeful. But now it strikes me as being incredibly naive. I don’t think there is an America anymore. What actually binds us together? Right now, I can’t really think of anything that does. There is very little overlap in terms of what people actually believe. It doesn’t just come down to beliefs or intangible things such as religion. It’s actual facts, such as science or a shared belief in the importance of certain political and social institutions. That basic disconnect is very frightening.
What kind of truth are you trying to reveal when you pick up the camera and take photographs?
When I was younger, I used to believe that you can go into a scene and be an objective observer and reveal some kind of truth there. I don’t really think that anymore. I don’t really believe in an objective truth about almost anything, except maybe some rare instances in the physical sciences. Definitely not in the social sciences. There’s no such thing as objective truth.
I am trying to do two things. I am trying to find whatever amount of objective truth that I can glean from a particular situation. For example, that there was an attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, and these are the people who did it. That is true. There’s no disputing that. More broadly, I’m looking for a subjective truth. I’m trying to discover in a scene what feels true to me, beyond just the facts of this situation. What is the true emotion? What are the true motivations with these people?
Read more on the Jan. 6 insurrection and the current hearings: