Chronicling History

This past weekend, I feel like I had a big experience in sprouting my photojournalism wings... while eating a lot of chicken wings. The two aren't necessarily related, but I did eat wings three days in a row before and while in Washington, D.C., to document what seems to be a historic moment for America.

There were a number of firsts this weekend. First president in office with no political experience, first women's march of such scale perhaps ever and the first time several of my close friends got pepper sprayed.

 Protesters clash with police, who sprayed pepper spray and yelled "move back," following the inauguration of Donald Trump on Jan. 20.

Protesters clash with police, who sprayed pepper spray and yelled "move back," following the inauguration of Donald Trump on Jan. 20.

Back up a bit. After Trump was elected president, one of my fellow photojournalism majors, Matt Starkey (who's still a freshman but shoots like he's a senior), photographed two women getting married on the courthouse steps in Athens. They were worried they wouldn't be able to marry under the new president, so they decided in a quick decision to go ahead and do it. Matt wrote a blog about his experience and ended it with, "I definitely want to cover more political events in the future and could even see myself going to D.C. to cover Trump’s inauguration — and the protests that will likely go with it." 

Little did Matt know how right he would be about the protests and everything, and that he would have the opportunity to go to D.C. after all. When I saw that, I got the inkling of an idea, "what if I went too?" Then I began asking other photographer friends and before we knew it, we had two cars with seven people total (5 of whom shot the entire weekend, myself included) heading to D.C. this past weekend.

We left Athens around 8 on Thursday night and didn't actually get into D.C. until 2 or 2:30 a.m. We didn't anticipate much sleep, but woke up excited for the day's happenings (if not at least a little groggy). We took the metro into town and started from near the end of the line, but it was surprisingly not packed. 

 Matt in his Ohio gear as the metro rushes past.

Matt in his Ohio gear as the metro rushes past.

We got into Chinatown around 9:45. Inauguration activities were set to really start when the swearing-in began at 11:30. So we wandered around and immediately saw the signs. Heavy security, red hats, people selling shirts and cashing in on the day's events. 

We found ourselves over near a particularly active security checkpoint, where there were many people waiting to get in. A majority seemed to be protesters. We heard there were more Trump supporters at other gates, but we found ourselves around a lot of signs and varying opinions.

Matt got in before Lauren, Mia and I. We didn't find Liz until dinner. Marlena was doing her own thing all weekend. So the three of us finally decided to get in line at the security checkpoint. It was very congested at our point. Liz texted and said she got in, which ended up being at least an hour before we did. She got in line after us, just at a different point. We waited for so long that we missed the actual inauguration and address. But what I captured in line around noon when Trump was sworn in was worth it.

 Austin Phillips and Kristy Lowenkron of Baltimore kiss in celebration after Donald Trump was sworn in as president.

Austin Phillips and Kristy Lowenkron of Baltimore kiss in celebration after Donald Trump was sworn in as president.

After about 2 1/2 hours of waiting, we got into the area where the parade was to come through on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a lot of waiting, but in the meantime, I talked with a few other budding photojournalists, a protesters and a few other students. Finally the parade came through.

Trump got out of the car and walked later in the parade route, but about all I saw/captured was a limp hand in a dark limo.

That was met with some cheers, some boos and such responses as these:

After the parade festivities wrapped up around 4:15 or so, we were hungry. We hadn't eaten a proper meal all day, so we decided to go get Pho in Chinatown. Walking around, I spotted an interesting juxtaposition.

While eating a much needed meal, I remembered what another photographer had told me during the parade – there had been ongoing riots near 12th and K street. When I looked on Twitter, K Street was a trending topic. I got a New York Times news alert saying that riots had been occurring throughout the day. Protesters smashed windows and burned a car.

Now, in that situation, most people would say, "Hey, we should stay far away from that," right? Well, in order to be a photojournalist, you have to be a certain degree of crazy. So I suggested we go check it out. Everyone was on board. Let me just say this: this job is not for the faint of heart.

When we showed up, it looked as though protests were winding down. Police redirected us from the area. So naturally, we went around the block. 

Initially, I saw protesters with arms linked across the road with police standing nearby, monitoring the situation and waiting. But we soon found that a fire had been started in the street nearby, and a crowd was starting to gather.

Protesters soon began throwing more and more on the fire. Some decided to take photos with (or on) the fire or use it to light cigarettes.

As much as anyone at the protest would have wanted to continue the fire all night, I knew that inevitably the police were just playing a waiting game and would eventually shut it down. Skip ahead about 20 minutes. That's actually what brings us back to where this post started and the photo up top.

The riot police are lined up and they mean business. They start marching down the street yelling, "move back!" I moved at about the pace of the protesters, trying to stay off to the sides and out of the way. They were not discerning between protesters and press, but rather treating all as equally obstructive and moving indiscriminately. 

I started to smell and taste the pepper spray in the air and covered my mouth with my jacket, coughing lightly. I was far enough away that it didn't affect me much. Taking a cue from another camera man, who said, "press, move!" – I started moving away.

Little did I know, my friends were in the front lines. Matt got the worst of the pepper spray, Lauren got some side effects and Mia was hit with the spray from another man getting hit next to her.

It was around then we were starting to get separated. Lauren and Matt's phones were dead and while I saw them at one point after the pepper spray, that was short lived. I was distracted by protesters helping the victims of pepper spray and another fire. I found Liz and Mia and continued to search the area for Lauren and Matt.

Liz, Mia and I eventually left the area and tried to head away from the protest spot generally. Unsurprisingly, we happened across more protests happening a few blocks away. When we tried to get past, Mia and Liz made it. I stopped to photograph the protesters when an officer stopped me and said, "hey, get back over there!" with the protesters. I tried to say that I was never over there but I couldn't reason with him in the heat of the moment. That's when I happened across Matt again.

After we got out of the thick of it, Matt and I cleared the protest area and headed for the metro station in Chinatown – the meeting point we had set. Mia (whose phone was still alive) said she had been corralled with the nicely dressed ball goers, who the police had barricaded in to keep safe. When she got out, she found us at Chinatown station. Liz had gone back to her cousin's place.

So three of the four were together again. The only problem was we didn't have Lauren... and her phone was dead. We waited for at least 20 minutes at the station before the protests made their way into Chinatown. We decided to leave, worried about our friend but figured we should get the heck out before things got crazier. Little did we know she had actually run right past us in the group of protesters.

So we got back to Silver Spring where we were staying, only to find that Lauren's car was still in the parking garage. A bit dismayed, we took an Uber back to where we were staying and figured out what to do next. It wouldn't be worth it to go back downtown. I decided to call the police to see if Lauren had been detained. Thankfully, she hadn't been. But where was she? Some time passed and 45 minutes later, I called again. She hadn't been detained, but we got some good news soon after that. Lauren's phone was back on and she was on her way. It was a big relief.

So we ordered a pizza and pigged out after a stressful day of shooting. We were exhausted (after walking almost 8 miles throughout the day!) but excited to start looking through images.

The next day, we slept in a bit and then went down for the Women's March on Washington. The turnout was huge. Never have I seen so many people in one place.

One of the first things we saw upon arriving were people making their voices heard in front of the fenced off Trump hotel.

Thankfully I don't have a long-winded story from all of the crazy happenings and mishaps from the day. It was just amazing to see such a display of people and passion all in one area. So much energy.

And while nobody can really disagree that women deserve to be equal (well, you could but hello – more than half the population!), there were a few varying opinions, even at the women's march. Some pro-life protesters were present in the middle of the parade route, plus a man named Kenny Stripling, who was singing a song about "Big Hands Don" in his Trump van in support of a president he supported a lot. But he recognized that everyone's rights to free speech were equal and said he loved all the protesters.

Someone even had a Trump voodoo doll, which was interesting.

I don't have too much else to say about the Women's March other than it was cool to see such a strong turnout and feel the energy. Here are a few more highlights.

So that's about it! We were exhausted after two long days but I felt like I shot well and was thankful to have witnessed such an interesting moment in history. And as much as photojournalists and journalists try to remain unbiased, I can't be in such situations and not feel some sort of emotion. It was a lot to take in and it's just now catching up to me. I'm going to need some time to process what I felt in D.C. and what's happening in our nation. But one thing's for sure - I'm ready to document whatever comes next.