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A Snapshot Of History From Behind The Lens

Tom Williams fled the United States Capitol on September 11, 2001, fearing for his life. He didn’t think he would ever see a day on Capitol Hill that tense again.

Until Wednesday, January 6, that is. Following a breach of the Capitol Building and protests that left at least five people dead, things started to feel all too familiar for Williams.

He graduated from Penn State in 1999 with bachelor’s degrees in both American studies and art. Williams’ specialty? Photography.

Williams began his career as a photo intern for CQ Roll Call and has worked with the outlet ever since. Over his expansive career, he’s photographed presidential inaugurations, national party conventions, and the Gulf Coast oil spill, to name a few.

In October, Williams covered the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. In a few weeks, he’ll attend President-elect Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address.

And just a few days ago, Williams was at the Capitol when hundreds of rioters swarmed the building, broke in, and attempted to stop the certification of Biden’s victory.

Courtesy of Tom Williams | Roll Call

Even though Williams now has more than 20 years of experience as a photojournalist, he wasn’t always sure that’s where his career would end up.

“I was a student and was kind of just drifting along and taking whatever general classes there were, and nothing really struck me,” Williams said. “I was a senior and about to graduate and I was like, ‘Ok this is getting serious’ because I really didn’t have any direction.”

He had a few credits left before graduation and needed an art class, so Williams took a photography class tapping into a few years of experience he had already from high school.

January 6 was a fairly typical workday for Williams…until it wasn’t.

He covered the joint session in the morning and went to find an office with some windows on the second floor of the Capitol Building to file and edit his photos.

“I’m sitting there filing and I see staffers going to look out the windows on the east front of the Capitol, so I go out to look, too. I see all these Trump people out there,” Williams said. “There wasn’t a ton yet, maybe a few hundred spaced out. But I knew this rally with President Trump wasn’t over yet. And I knew there were what looked like tens of thousands of people there. I’m like, ‘All those people must be coming up here after.'”

As crowds grew and quickly approached the Capitol Building, Williams knew he needed to get closer and bring his camera. He made his way to the door where the members come in and out and, at that moment, he realized just how close the crowds had gotten. Instinctively, he snapped a photo.

Courtesy of Tom Williams | Roll Call

“Normally, cops would’ve cleared me out of that area,” Williams said. “But the cops were running past me and some other reporters like we weren’t even there. That tipped me off that they had way bigger problems than us just milling around here.”

Shortly thereafter, Williams and a few other reporters were ushered by police into the House gallery that overlooks the floor. Joining them in the gallery were members of Congress. Urgently, they were instructed to get their gas masks out from under their chairs and put them on.

“This was kind of alarming because the last I saw they were outside the door,” Williams said. “And now, the reports we’re getting is that they’re inside. We thought, ‘OK, how many got in? Do they have weapons?'”

Despite repeated efforts from the police to get Williams to stop photographing, he persisted. The fear, stress, and chaos were all captured and shared widely across social media, marking a day he will never forget.

Courtesy of Tom Williams | Roll Call

Williams said the September 11 attacks, much like January 6’s events, easily resembled some of the most challengings points in his career as a Washington, D.C. photojournalist. He was there 20 years ago when the Capitol Building evacuated, and suddenly, he found himself in an eerily similar spot last week.

“I was a little more afraid I was going to die on [9/11] because when you piece it together after the fact, that plane that the passengers took down in Pennsylvania was going to the Capitol,” Willams said. “If you time it right, we probably would’ve been out in time. But when we were in the chamber [on Wednesday] and they were banging in, that was sort of what it felt like.”

Courtesy of Tom Williams | Roll Call

“I wasn’t in fear for my life at that point,” Williams said. “I just figured the police had the protestors outgunned at least.”

Like many journalists, Williams’ role in covering these events is critical. It’s a stark and sobering reminder of the importance of journalists and photojournalists in times like these. Not only will these photos likely end up in books and history lessons, but they’re also being used as evidence.

“It’s just great in these days that we have so many cameras around to capture all this because hopefully, you learn from your mistakes,” Williams said. “All of these photos, like ones from my colleagues, will be used to help identify these perpetrators.”

Following his interview with Onward State, Williams said he remains determined as ever. He’ll head back up to the Hill to keep shooting and telling stories.

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About the Author

Ryen Gailey

Ryen is a junior early childhood education major from "right outside of Philly" - or in exact words, from 23.0 miles outside of Philly. She loves all things Penn State and has been a huge Penn State gal since before she could walk. Send her pictures of puppies, or hate mail at [email protected]

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