Photographer Shares His Experience Documenting ‘Washington on Edge’

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National Geographic has published a stirring piece from photographer Louie Palu that covers his experience documenting two impeachments, a pandemic, civil unrest, lockdowns, and an attack on democracy.

“Washington On Edge” is a powerful story made up of video clips, photos, and text that provides a first person point of view of how the country’s cohesion and its democracy was shaken by COVID-19, the attack on the Capitol, and all the moments leading up to it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, artist Suzanne Firstenberg and celebrity chef José Andrés walk through an art installation near the DC Armory of over 230,000 white flags, each representing a death in the United States from covid-19 on Nov. 2. | Photo © Louie Palu
Two people dressed up as plague doctors stand in front of the U.S. Capitol as part of a campaign warning that people who are against vaccination could prolong the COVID-19 pandemic. On the same day the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce held a joint hearing on “Disinformation Nation: Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation.” | Photo © Louie Palu

Palu says that he has, for years, photographed conflict around the world from Afghanistan and Ukraine — where political and ideological differences spark violence — to the drug war in Mexico where the rule of law has collapsed. These are extreme circumstances, and Palu likely did not expect to find a similar circumstance take place in the United States.

Through two presidential impeachments, widespread civil unrest, the proliferation of the coronavirus pandemic, and the violent attack on the Capitol, Palu believes the effects of the last couple of years will continue to reverberate through American society for years to come.

“What I envisioned as a single photo essay turned into an ongoing project,” Palu says. “I continued to photograph in the nation’s capital, documenting the strains on American society that threaten the country’s cohesion and its democracy.”

A sea of thousands of people occupy and move up the West front lawn of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. as they join a mob that has begun to attack police, journalists and breach the Capitol through windows and doors looking to overturn the election results as the Electoral College vote count was beginning. | Photo © Louie Palu

Palu’s story is a powerful look at the events that transpired from the perspective of a person who witnessed them in person.

“Trump had hardly finished touting his acquittal before the country was plunged into a frightening pandemic.
In the capital, the response was quickly shaped by sharp partisan differences,” he writes. “And then George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer shocked the country, bringing protests and violent confrontations to the White House.

A staffer from the office of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi adjusts a flag in front of a painting of George Washington in a room on Capitol Hill in Washington DC where Nancy Pelosi and House Democratic leaders will address the press and U.S. public immediately after what would be the vote that impeached U.S. President Donald Trump. | Photo © Louie Palu
Capitol and Metro Police fight off a group of Pro-Trump attackers in a hallway using batons and rubber projectiles after they assaulted police and vandalized offices on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol causing a lock down of the Capitol Complex and evacuation of staff and elected officials including the Vice President in Washington D.C. | Photo © Louie Palu

“The election, the foundation on which the country’s freedom and its stature in the world rest, became the next crisis after Trump insisted without evidence that Joe Biden’s victory on November 3, 2020, was fraudulent,” he continues.

A member of the National Guard called on to protect the Capitol in Washington D.C. after the January 6 attack is seen in the Rotunda with a statue of President Abraham Lincoln and a painting depicting the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, a painting which details the surrender of the British to an army lead by George Washington. | Photo © Louie Palu

“The president’s supporters stormed Washington in the weeks afterward and eventually attacked the Capitol. After the assault on January 6, 2021, government buildings around the city were fortified by wire and concrete, guarded by heavily armed troops. And in yet another infamous first in the history of the country, a president was impeached for a second time.”

The National Geographic Society, which is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of the planet, funded Palu’s work on the politics of COVID 19 since 2020. Palu’s entire photo series and full account can be read on National Geographic.

Members of a Pro-Trump mob in the midst of violently attacking police and breaching the U.S. Capitol building are seen in a cloud of tear gas, pepper spray and dust from fire extinguishers which were used as weapons against police at the North entrance of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell later labelled the attack as a “failed insurrection” provoked by the president’s “lies” and said that the Senate “will not bow to lawlessness or intimidation”. | Photo © Louie Palu

Header photo caption: A man cheers during the violent attack of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. after a mob of Pro-Trump supporters continued clashing with police through a door and into a hallway which was breached by attackers, they then looted, vandalized offices and assaulted police in the Capitol after the start of the process of counting the Electoral College votes during a joint session of Congress. Photo © Louie Palu.


Image credits: All photos by Louie Palu, provided courtesy of National Geographic.

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