When we interviewed Mel D. Cole last week about his career shift from photographing hip-hop stars to political flashpoints like Black Lives Matter protests and Trump rallies, we were struck by the psychic distance he was able to take from the chaotic scenes he’d encountered. After decades of living fully in the hip-hop world, knowing and being friendly with those he photographed, he seemed to have adjusted almost immediately to the more distant remove of the documentarian. Even when his own safety was at stake:
I got to the point where, when I would go to these protests and counter-protests, and there were clashes, I would stay on the other side of the barricade. It’s a little bit more interesting, after spending months embedded, basically, with Black Lives Matter, so it’s like, “Why not be on this other side in this?” Especially when they weren’t fucking with me, they weren’t telling me to leave. They weren’t telling me all the classic, “Fuck you. Get the fuck out of here!” kind of shit. I’m like, “I’m going to take advantage of it.”
Is it easy to do that shit, being a Black man? Fuck no! It’s not easy, because sometimes it’s like, “Fuck.” I forget that I have the camera, and I have this white guy yelling — not necessarily at me, but at someone that looks just like me. It’s like, “Fuck.” I want to scream back at him but I just try to keep it as professional as possible.
Cole’s approach to photojournalism was clearly on display yesterday — when he attended the various protests-turned-riots-turned-full-blown-insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The photos below show the acclaimed photographer doing what he does best: telling human stories through his lens. In some cases, that means taking detailed portraits of Donald Trump supporters full of telling details; in others, it means snapping into action to catch moments of drama, as protesters and counterprotesters race to clear pepper spray from their eyes; in others still, it means stepping back and capturing the magnitude of the insurgence through his lens.
Taken all together, Cole’s images have something powerful to say about yesterday’s riots, the scene in D.C., and life in America at the dawn of 2021.