Zack Bolton watched, camera in hand, as rioters Jan. 6 climbed TV scaffolding set up for President Joe Biden’s inauguration two weeks later. Too few police were around. Bolton, a Cortland native, realized the enormity of the situation.
He knew who had the power.
“Of all the gatherings I’ve covered, it wasn’t like anything I’ve photographed before,” he said. “It was really the first time I’ve seen a mob of people. It was by and large a fairly violent moment, especially the closer you got to the Capitol.”
A freelance photojournalist, Bolton arrived about 1 p.m. after hearing then- President Donald Trump exhort his supporters to march on over and “stop the steal” of the 2020 election as Congress convened to certify the results.
It was a day that saw five people die — including a police officer. Sixty Capitol Hill police officers and 58 District of Columbia police were injured. A woman was shot trying to crawl through a Capitol window; another was crushed under the crowd as they broke into the Capitol, taking control of its halls and chambers.
It inspired a second impeachment of Trump over his role inciting the crowd to storm the Capitol.
As Bolton would come to realize, it would be an historic day he captured up close and personal.
AN EYE, A CAMERA
Bolton, 33, was born and raised in Cortland and majored in conservation biology at SUNY Cortland before completing his master’s degree coursework at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
A photographer for years, Bolton said what got him into photojournalism was his understanding that there was a gap to be bridged in scientific writing. He had a passion for the wellbeing of the environment, but Bolton said he realized that scientific journals he read were written for other scientists or people like himself who had a background studying science but were hard to understand for the layperson.
He realized that to show people about the changes in the environment, scientists were talking about and the ecosystems that depend on the care of humans would require doing so in a way people could understand, thus facilitating the need for photography.
He took a job with National Geographic and moved to Washington in 2019. It was then he started photographing protests and rallies as people passionately advocated for political issues, though not for National Geographic but for his personal interest.
Bolton said when covering these events, he tries to remain a neutral observer by being distant from people, moreso now because of the coronavirus pandemic, and tries to be as balanced as possible, showing both the protesters and counter protesters.
Additionally, he tends not to focus on the signs people carry, rather the people themselves.
“I think it helps provide a lot of nuance,” he said.
JAN. 6, 2021
Upon hearing Trump’s statement to his supporters on Jan. 6, Bolton knew he had to get down to the Capitol to capture the moment. What he didn’t realize until later was that he would capture history.
Almost as soon as he arrived at the west side of the Capitol building around 1 p.m., the dissidents were making a push toward the building. From about 1,000 to 1,500 feet out from the building, waist-high metal fencing had been erected, which the flood of people easily took down.
As the crowd got closer to the Capitol, people started climbing scaffolding set up for TV cameras for President Joe Biden’s inauguration two weeks later.
“That was one of the first things the people started to make their own,” Bolton said.
What became abundantly clear to Bolton was the lack of Capitol police presence. Few police were spotted until Bolton, who was right at the front with the dissidents, got up to the permanent fence of the Capitol building.
That’s when Bolton realized the crowd he was a part of meant to do harm; they threw sticks, rocks and water bottles at the police, Bolton said. Some even threw frozen water bottles, clearly meant to inflict pain.
“I was pretty surprised at that,” he said.
Once the crowd started throwing objects, Capitol police started firing back with pepperball guns.
The crowd, though, came prepared with water, milk, and baking soda mixture to treat their eyes from the pepper balls.
The insurrectionists kept pushing closer, removing some permanent fencing and getting right up to the Capitol. A 30-foot-long, 5-foot-wide platform on wheels with a Trump banner was used as a battering ram against the barriers and the police, Bolton said.
It was at this point, 45 minutes to an hour after Bolton started taking photos, that police reinforcements arrived at the scene with riot shields and flashbangs.
DIFFERENT PLACES, DIFFERENT FEELINGS
One thing that stood out to Bolton was the differing energies and attitudes of the people both at and near the Capitol.
The atmosphere Bolton experienced at the front of the crowd was that of an angry mob as the people meant to do harm and destruction, judging by the way they acted, the chants they said — including calls for Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to be hanged — and the weapons they brought.
“A lot of folks up front seemed like there was a goal to get into the building,” he said. “They weren’t planning on staying still. They wanted to get into that building.”
Yet three to four blocks away from the Capitol, Trump supporters were protesting in a more common and less violent manner. These people, he said, were showing support for Trump and the belief the election was stolen, but not acting on it.
“It’s funny to see that stark contrast: the insurrectionists and three to four blocks away, seeing people wearing MAGA hats eating a steak at a restaurant,” he said.
Bolton said he believed the overwhelming majority of the violent insurrection and dissidents came from outside of Washington, D.C., which overwhelmingly voted for Biden and has long been a Democratic stronghold.
For three hours, Bolton faced strong anti-media sentiments with people swearing at him and calling him fake news.
When people asked him what news outlet he worked for, he told them he was an independent photojournalist — which he is — which seemed to have gone over better than those with established news organizations like the Associated Press, who were attacked and had equipment stolen and damaged.
What surprised Bolton the most was the lack of police presence until the mob got right up to the Capitol and even then was lacking as insurrectionists were able to break through and enter the building.
“It does seem particularly shocking that there was virtually no police presence to deter this thing at the Capitol,” he said. That stood in stark contrast to protests he’s covered before, including Black Lives Matter protests, where police and other agencies were out in force.
“It felt like there was a mob unleashed in the Capitol and nobody was there to stop it,” he said.
CROWD DIES DOWN
About two hours after arriving on the scene, the Capitol Hill police, reinforced by the FBI and D.C. Metropolitan Police, seemed to be taking control of the situation, Bolton said.
People in the group he was with started slowly leaving as well, having exhausted their energy.
Bolton stayed around for another hour, but decided to leave when he received automated text messages notifying him that a 6 p.m. curfew was enacted. It was starting to get dark and he felt he had captured the scene.
While he was not injured — despite being an arm’s reach of police officers at times — his ears rang from flashbangs that exploded near him.
Once he got home and processed what he experienced, in part with a flurry of messages and phone calls from friends and family asking about his well-being, he realized he had captured a significant event in the country’s history.
For Bolton, this was an attack on the country’s democracy at the same level as 9/11 — but this was caused by U.S. citizens, not foreign terrorists.
HOW DO WE DEAL WITH THIS?
More than two weeks later, the question that keeps coming to Bolton’s mind is this: What does this mean for the safety of our government in the future?
Bolton doesn’t have any answers, but thinks it showed the true political division between people that can’t be ignored.
“I think this just really rings true to how divided our country is and how toxic the political and social environment is in our country,” he said.
Bolton said he likes a diversity of opinions and is a strong supporter of the First Amendment — it provides legal protection for his photojournalism, after all — but believes political division has eroded a common middle ground.
Since the event, he’s posted his pictures on his website and social media pages, and while the majority of people support his work, Bolton says he’s received messages claiming the insurrectionists were members of antifa, an anti-fascist movement, or paid left-wing radicals.
He said this is disheartening: He was there. He saw the people and heard their support for Trump.
Bolton said he is hopeful Biden can deliver on his calls for unity.
But what happened Jan. 6, 2021, should not be misrepresented or misunderstood, he said.
“From where I was standing, there was an insurrection,” he said. “There was an active move to overthrow our government and I think that needs to be dealt with.”