You may know Mel D. Cole from his music photography — he has photographed SZA, Erykah Badu, A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, and more. You may also know him from his stunning, unforgettable images as one of the photographers on the ground with the crowd at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. Cole’s photographs of that day stood out to me on Instagram as I, along with many Americans, watched as a mob broke into the Capitol building. His beautiful black-and-white images put the violence and chaos into stark reality. I wasn’t the only one who noticed — Jamie Lee Curtis, the actor and writer, also shared Cole’s work that day. The two met on Instagram, and Curtis wrote the preface for his new book, American Protest: Photographs 2020-2021.
American Protest looks back at over a year of protests in America — citizens taking to the streets with signs, in costumes, or in some cases with weaponry to exercise their right to protest. “One of the most important things about the book is that it's not just Black Lives Matter protests,” Cole said. “It's about the Capitol and protests from my perspective in general.” It was also important to Cole that part of the proceeds will be going to Black-led organizations.
How did you get into photography?
I got into photography by way of music. I photographed a Common show back in 2001 at SOB’s in New York City. I took a few disposable cameras to the show as a fan, captured some images, and got them developed at Rite Aid or Duane Reade. I thought, this is cool, put them in a shoebox, and didn’t think about them for a while. A few months later, I got a few magazines in the mail, Rolling Stones and Complex. Looking at the pages, I thought, I think my images were just as good. That's what sparked my whole career.
My next steps were to buy a digital camera. When I bought my first one, I bought a fake digital camera off the street. My next real camera was a Fuji — 4 megapixels and the memory card was nothing; it could hold maybe 200 photos. Then I just had to figure out what kind of photographer I wanted to be.
I knew I wanted to shoot music, but I didn't have any access to the artists, the musicians, or the venues. I said to myself, OK, you want to be a music photographer and you want to be known. I went out and took photos for free, and then I became part of the scene, just constantly going out in downtown Manhattan. I ended up shooting Kanye West in Madison Square Garden because I met my now–close friend Shawn in a bar in Jersey City — he worked for IMG at the time, who was sponsoring the show. Questlove I met at one of his shows and figured out a way to get backstage. Where there's a will, there's a way.
What did it look like once you achieved your goal of becoming a music photographer?
It was fun. I pinch myself when I'm in certain rooms with certain individuals. It was humbling to know that hard work pays off. For a good portion of my career, I had a day job. I worked 9 to 5 and would go out at night. Once I didn't need the day job anymore, it was refreshing. I felt like a real photographer, finally making it past the “fake it till you make it” mentality.
The book is about covering protests in America over the last few years. As a music photographer, how did you end up in Washington, DC, on Jan. 6?
After George Floyd was murdered, I dedicated my career and my platform to amplifying and documenting the [Black Lives Matter] movement. I'm such a curious person, I started to learn and intertwine what was going on. You learn who people are, what they want to do, who they're mad at, and why. I wanted to document that too. I documented a few Trump rallies, and I would document Blue Lives Matter counterprotests to BLM protests.
I thought that the rally in Washington, DC, on Jan. 6 was going to be Trump's last hurrah, his last big speech in front of a large audience. I thought I would go because it was the "last one." I didn't know what was going to happen. I don't think anyone from a journalistic point of view knew what was going to happen. I was expecting to get some pepper spray photos, some angry finger-pointing, and some arrests. I didn't expect it to be one of the most dramatic and memorable days in US and world history.
One of the most memorable scenes and situations was with the officer Michael Fanone, when the angry mob, the insurrectionists, when they dragged him from the steps and were beating him and yelling “kill him with his own gun.” I was able to capture this dramatic image that's included in the book of him pleading for his life, telling the mob that he has kids. Besides that, when the woman was trampled to death by the crowd, I saw that from a little bit of a distance. People yelling “traitor” to the cops — there was a scene — I keep calling them scenes because it felt like a fucking movie. When the crowd on Jan. 6 was chanting “I can't breathe,” it was really disrespectful, to me and to Black people around the world. I was scared. I was scared I could die. I wasn't as scared of the people around me, but I've seen what happens when it's a mostly all-white crowd, the police focus in on the Black people.
What was it like being at these protests?
It was scary a lot of the time. You didn’t know what was going to happen next. It could be your average protest march one day, and then the next thing you know, people are being pepper-sprayed by the police. I was standing on the Brooklyn Bridge documenting protests, and then the next thing I know, I'm spending eight hours in jail because a white cop pointed at me and said, “Take him too.” When I told him I was press, he said he didn't see my press pass, and I went to jail for a day. I've been punched in the face by counterprotesters in Philadelphia, right next to police officers. Shit like that, for some people, that might stop them from wanting to continue to go out to the protests. For me, it was motivation to go out and continue on. If someone was that upset and angry, for me it meant it was important work for me to go out and continue documenting what they were angry about.
What are your plans going forward?
It seems like the protests have died down, as everyone has seen. Now I’m just transitioning back into doing what I was doing before, but on a grander scale. I'm not the same photographer as I was before the pandemic. I'm expanding my soccer business documenting Black and multicultural athletes. I've been working on that since 2009, and it's going well. Other than that, just working on stories that are important to me. Last year, I went down to the border to document migrants, immigrants, people who are trying to cross over the border and make a better life for themselves.
If the protests happen again, and I say if it happens again, and unfortunately it will happen again, another Black man shot or choked by police — if and when that happens, and people march and protest, I'll be there.