From his studio in the Inscape building in the Chinatown International District, photographer Nate Gowdy spent months poring over a series of photos he took during a single day: January 6, 2021, the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Gowdy, who documents American politics and the extreme right, found himself in the midst of the mob of supporters of former president Donald Trump who swarmed the Capitol attempting to prevent Congress from counting the electoral college votes certifying President Biden’s victory.
Insurrection is Gowdy’s photo book documenting January 6 in 124 stark black and white images, time stamped and presented chronologically.
On March 30, Gowdy will speak at Town Hall in Seattle about the book and his experience.
Gowdy launched his career as a staff photographer for Seattle Gay News covering drag and nightlife, and has worked as the official photographer for Seattle Pride since 2011. Since 2015, he has covered hundreds political rallies across the country as part of his Vote American! project.
When he took the flight to D.C., Gowdy thought he would be witnessing one last Trump rally before Biden’s transition to power. He planned for the photos to serve as a capstone for a (so far unpublished) photo book documenting the four years of Trump in office.
Having just photographed the historic Senate runoff elections in Georgia and on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, Gowdy boarded a flight to D.C. armed with a Leica Q camera. Half the passengers seemed to be Trump supporters, wearing Make America Great Again hats and chanting slogans. “I knew that based on the plane ride and everything, January 6 was going to be stupid,” Gowdy said in an interview with the International Examiner. “I had no idea it was going to be deadly stupid.”
At the National Mall, Gowdy saw members of the far right Proud Boys on the march. He chose to skip Trump’s “Save America” rally where most of the press were and follow the action.
Within ten minutes, a member of the group lunged at him, but Gowdy quickly backed away unharmed. The militants broke for lunch at a hot dog stand, live streaming Trump’s speech.
Then the militants got in formation. “The mood changes, they turn serious,” Gowdy said. “I mean, something is different.”
They marched toward the Peace Monument, chanting slogans like “Fuck Antifa!” “Whose house? Our house” and “Fight for Trump.” Gowdy trailed behind.
He found himself with his back to the small, waist-level perimeter barrier outside the Capitol. Four or five police officers without riot gear were the only security presence. Gowdy was amazed at the sea of people now amassed outside the barrier, chanting.
He was standing next to the first of the insurrectionists to break the barrier. At that moment, from Gowdy’s point of view, they changed from protesters exercising their First Amendment rights to a mob attempting to undermine the election results.
Caught in the chaos of people toppling the barriers and crossing over. Gowdy started taking photos. He was attacked again, pushed off a balustrade he was standing on.
Gowdy had borrowed a friend’s camera with telephoto lens, but was struggling with the focus, so he relied on his 28mm fixed lens Leica Q. “All my photos [on January 6] are wide, but I think it gives you a sense of being one of the insurrectionists, almost,” Gowdy said. “I’m right in there with them.”
It was a scary situation, and more dangerous than Gowdy realized at the time. Unlike other photographers, Gowdy had no protective goggles, gas masks or knee pads – nor was he intimately familiar with the layout of the Capitol. “You’re in survival mode, because these people are gnarly, they’re nuts,” Gowdy said. “I mean, anyone could have popped off and hurt me.”
Gowdy mostly photographed around the inaugural platform outside the Capitol – he didn’t know until later that the interior was breached.
Eventually, Gowdy walked back to his friend’s apartment and stayed up all night combing through his 2851 photos, and sending a selection to Rolling Stone.
It’s a miracle Gowdy’s book exists, because his backpack with camera, computer and hard drives were stolen at Union Station in D.C. while he was on the phone. “That was probably the lowest point of my professional career,” Gowdy said. “I just experienced an insurrection, the most historic thing I’ve ever photographed, and one of the strangest, most tragic days in modern American history. And now the photos are gone.”
But the equipment was spotted on Offerup.com, and after dodging extortion attempts, a friend of Gowdy’s lured the seller back to Amtrak, where Amtrak police performed a sting operation. With the gear recovered, Gowdy did not press charges.
Gowdy felt resolved to turn the photos into a book after an unsettling interaction with his then-partner’s parents in September 2021.
He was warned against talking politics when he met his then-partner’s Trump-supporting parents, and tried not to take the bait. But at a restaurant, when Gowdy offhandedly referred to January 6 as an insurrection, his ex’s father indignantly yelled, “What insurrection?”
A couple months later, struggling financially, Gowdy contemplated fulfilling his decade-long dream of making a photo book and hopefully selling some copies. “It was in my head that people need to see these pictures,” he said. “People like my ex’s dad who don’t even think it’s real.”
The process – including gathering contextual information and telling the story of January 6 through the captions – took months. “I was piecing together timelines and synthesizing lots of information into a digestible chronological narrative,” Gowdy said.
The first-edition softcover of over 600 books sold out. He has now published in a second edition, in 6 x 8 inch hardcover and a larger coffee table book version. Gowdy is working on getting it into bookstores.
Gowdy said he feels drawn to documenting the far right because unlike his work with studio clients, he doesn’t have to make his subjects look good. “I just get to see what I see.” Though he uses the methods and abides by the ethics of photojournalism, Gowdy said he approaches his work like a fine art photographer, seeking to create striking black and white images not commonly seen. “You can put me next to the most beautiful scene, and I won’t feel inspired to take photos because everyone else has photos of it,” Gowdy said. “I’m obviously drawn to, you know, toxic American dysfunction. And the beautifully grotesque.”
Something of this aesthetic sensibility was clear to Michael Rowe, a journalist – and horror novelist – who wrote the introduction to Insurrection.
In 2016, Rowe was struck by one of Gowdy’s photos of the crowd at Trump rally in Colorado. In an essay for HuffPo titled “When Pictures Tell Stories We’d Rather Not Hear,” he had this to say about Gowdy’s image:
“Though the image is spontaneous, by definition, uncontrived, each face speaks volumes, and the natural arrangement of their bodies recalls a Renaissance painting with each character’s face and body playing a part in telling the painting’s, or in this case photograph’s story,” Rowe wrote.
“In addition to the fact that I think he’s brilliant, I thought it was perfect to have a Canadian horror writer penning the intro to this,” Gowdy said.
Meanwhile, the forward to the book’s second edition, by D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel Hodges, speaks to Gowdy’s own legal involvement in the saga of January 6.
Hodges was attacked by the mob on January 6 and crushed in a tunnel leading to the Capitol.
Along with Hodges, Gowdy served as an eyewitness in the landmark insurrection trial of Couy Griffin, Otero County Commissioner and founder of Cowboys for Trump. In September 2022, a New Mexico judge ordered Griffin removed from public office and barred from future public office, for his role engaging in “in insurrection or rebellion” during January 6. It was the first time someone was tried for insurrection since the American Civil War era.
Officer Hodges went through real trauma that day, Gowdy said, but he doesn’t believe the same is true for himself. “I’m definitely still processing what I saw,” he said.
Over two years later, Gowdy sees the insurrection as a dark, Christofascist path the right wing took. “They don’t have the numbers to win elections. So what do they do? They’re undermining our institutions. They’re undermining democracy.” The insurrection, he believes, is a portent of a dangerous, extreme era. “They already struck down Roe v Wade, they have an agenda, and they’re going to find a way,” he said. “This is going to be a very dark, dark time before it gets better. And so to me, January 6 kicked that off this chapter.”
In 2022, the Museum of Fine Art, Houston, which has a dedicated war/conflict photography archive, requested copies of Gowdy’s book and two of his prints, representing modern-day conflict imagery taken within the United States. For Gowdy, it’s almost hard to believe.
““I never sought out being a conflict photographer,” Gowdy said. “I shouldn’t be able to think of myself as a conflict photographer. I’m a chicken – I’m not going to Ukraine.”