Past Is Prologue

What I Saw Documenting an Insurrection

A photographer’s perspective on recent events at the Capitol

James Townsend
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readJan 16, 2021
All photos courtesy of the author

If the last four years were a Hollywood screenplay, January 6th would have been a scene in the series finale. The moment where characters of seasons past reunite in a climactic moment four years in the making.

Around me, in a sea of strangers, were familiar faces from earlier episodes of this administration: Proud Boys and street preachers, white supremacists and QAnon conspiracists, pro-lifers and anti-vaxxers. Seeing them conjured memories of years’ worth of news stories — Charleston, Pizzagate, viral videos of suburban moms being thrown out of grocery stores for defying mask policies.

Beyond the shared name that adorned their flags and apparel, many of these groups made for strange bedfellows. I watched militias equipped with bulletproof vests and combat helmets mingling with families who’d brought dogs and strollers. I heard competing sermons on the biblical end of times, and four years of the best of times. A sign announcing “Jesus Saves” bumping against a noose, and the names of public servants said to be traitors.

It was a congregation of contradicting interests and ideas, bonded together under the banner of Donald J. Trump.

The atmosphere was festive and energetic, almost carnival-like. A man dressed as a bald eagle walked by, followed by another on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam. People sang anthems, beat drums, waved flags.

The circus tent of Trump’s brand of populism was inviting and open-air. The price of admission: loyalty to its ringmaster.

At first, I could not see why Neo-Nazis marched in step with Zionists, stockbrokers with nomadic…



James Townsend
Human Parts

James Townsend is a freelance photographer & educator. His work has been seen on NYT, CNN, ABC, BBC & more. or @jamesgoesplaces on IG.