IMAGO / Thomas Hengge

Thomas Hengge : Documenting the Insurrection

A week ago, we watched as reports broke of Trump supporters storming the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. On the frontlines, IMAGO photographer, Thomas Hengge captivated us with his images taken from the riot. Read his experience here.

January 6, 2021. The US Capitol Building was assaulted by pro-Trump supporters in a violent riot after a rally held by Trump himself. After urging his supporters to ‘fight much harder’, the world watched on as Trump loyalists stormed the entrances of the Capitol Building and shocking images flooded the media. 

IMAGO photographer and NY based, Thomas Hengge, witnessed first hand the drama and shares his account alongside some provocative and captivating images.

It felt like business as usual for whatever this was supposed to be, a show of force, maybe? I was running low on charge and felt like the mob had come to a standstill, a good time to regroup. I mean, how much further could they get?

Up since 5 AM in the cold had me bone chilled. This move cost me entry into the Capitol building.

Usually, I trust my gut. In this case, it was supremely wrong. In hindsight, probably for the best.

I walked from the Capitol building down the National Mall toward the metro, heading to a friend’s place not far. I planned to come right back out.

I got on the train. That is when the first notification came: “Protestors have breached the Capitol building.” The train couldn’t stop fast enough. Then, not long after, the second notification: “Woman shot breaching the Capitol building.”

Of course, I’m paraphrasing the headlines.

The train stopped. I got off and went back the other way.

Roughly 20 minutes later, I was running up the National Mall toward the Capitol, Trump supporters everywhere going in the opposite direction.

IMAGO / Thomas Hengge
Photo: IMAGO / Thomas Hengge

I finally reached the steps, hustling up the stairs under the bleachers set up for Biden’s inauguration. I reached the top where people were held up; a small walkway packed out with people was the only avenue in and out of the chaos.

Men pepper-sprayed by police filed out; others took their place at the front.

IMAGO / Thomas Hengge
Photo: IMAGO / Thomas Hengge
IMAGO / Thomas Hengge
Photo: IMAGO / Thomas Hengge

It was at that moment a group of men came up behind me. They looked like they were in charge in some capacity, enough for people to immediately snap to their commands. “Make a fucking hole,” they shouted. In military terms, this means “get out of the way.” We did.

I turned and looked at the door, roughly 50 meters away. “Get there,” I thought.

When I looked back, those same men were carrying out a Capitol police officer. It was so jarring I didn’t snap the image. “Shit,” was the only thing that crossed my mind.

As they carried the officer out, the crowd shouted, “PIG!” and other derogatory cop-related insults.

I gained composure and did a quick self-check-in. “Relax,” I told myself. It hardly worked.

Finally, I got to the entrance. As I did, the officers barricading the door with riot shields released gas and concussion, doing little to deter the mob but enough to push them back some.

IMAGO / Thomas Hengge
Photo: IMAGO / Thomas Hengge

Trump supporters came back harder. One had a bat, others’, pieces of furniture and poles, whipping and jabbing at officers, trying to breach the door. Officers held their ground, agitating the mob more. “I’ll fucking kill you,” yelled one man to the police.

IMAGO / Thomas Hengge
Photo: IMAGO / Thomas Hengge

Trump supporters kept trying to rush in the door. People standing back threw whatever they could get their hands on. Police pushed back, sending the crowd and me tumbling down the stairs. Two men behind me picked me up. Instinctually, I thanked them. Weird to think about now.

One woman was by a broken window directing, encouraging the rioters. “Our boys need gas masks and goggles,” she was saying in between calling to keep fighting. People scrambled everywhere. There was little organization. It felt that way anyway.

IMAGO / Thomas Hengge
Photo: IMAGO / Thomas Hengge

I don’t know how long I was up there. It felt like a long time. But looking back, I am not sure.

Things came to a head when a Federal Officer came out. They are the guys in all green military gear who became notorious in Portland, Oregon, this summer.

IMAGO / Thomas Hengge
Photo: IMAGO / Thomas Hengge

BOOM! Concussion grenades went off, followed by some gas.

Then another, BOOM! More gas.

I covered my mouth, but it did nothing. The gas burned, fanning out.

One more canister came, this time at my feet.

Gas consumed the crowd.

People panicked, as that is what gas is designed to do, of course.

I couldn’t see or breathe. Gas locks your lungs.

Having been gassed many times before in the Army, I kept repeating in my head, “don’t panic…don’t panic.” I knew it would stop burning, and I would breathe again, just not when.

All well and good, but there was nowhere to go to get away. People rushed for the exit. Where I was, there was only one way out. Everyone pushed for it, nearly trampling each other.

Almost falling over and for fear of getting crushed, I grabbed the person’s shirt in front of me, holding on as best I could, trying to keep him up so I didn’t get knocked down and killed. It worked.

Making it out, I leaned over the scaffolding under Biden’s bleachers and threw up the little that I had in my stomach. Gas is nasty. It rattled my body as I heaved.

Gaining composure, I made my way to the front of the Capitol by the wall. Mostly everyone had been pushed out by then.

IMAGO / Thomas Hengge
Photo: IMAGO / Thomas Hengge

At that point, I saw a reporter who had gotten a full dose of gas and was in a panic. “I can’t see,” he screamed, sitting on the steps calling out to anyone.

I slung my camera and ran to him, putting his arm over my shoulder and carrying him out.

We got to a safe distance. I put him down and went back to the front.

Out of every door came officers, finally taking back the Capitol.

IMAGO / Thomas Hengge
Photo: IMAGO / Thomas Hengge

From there, they launched more gas and concussion. It did little; everyone was too spread out.

I stayed there for some time, snapping photos, trying to get my head together.

Eventually, I had enough and walked back to the giant lawn in front of the Capitol building.

I lit a cigarette and just watched.

Flash from concussion, gas and screaming filled my senses.

“God,” I thought.

This was my first time at the US Capitol.

IMAGO / Thomas Hengge
Photo: IMAGO / Thomas Hengge

For more on any of Thomas Hengge’s latest work visit his website , or find his photographs on IMAGO

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