Spencer Platt ’94 is no stranger to violence.
As a photojournalist for Getty Images, he has been deployed to some of the world’s most war-ravaged countries, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Congo. He was in New York City on September 11, 2001, his camera capturing the horrific moment when the second plane exploded into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. He was dispatched to Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 to chronicle the immediate aftermath of the shooting massacre of 26 children and teachers, and to the Pulse nightclub in Orlando shortly after 49 people were murdered by a gunman. For more than two decades, his unsparing images have told hard truths.
Still, when he was assigned to cover the confirmation of Joe Biden’s presidential victory over Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, Platt was confident that despite Trump’s baseless assertions that the election had been stolen, the day would end peacefully. He’d covered numerous Trump campaign appearances, rallies, and protests, and had found them to be well-policed, and the crowds, while always boisterous and at times displaying open hostility toward the gathered news media, were largely non-violent
Even with his “antenna up” about Jan. 6, Platt had purchased a train ticket to return home to Brooklyn that night.
“I thought [Trump] would speak; that there would be screaming and yelling, then things would settle down and I’d be on the 607 to New York,” he recalls.
The ticket never got used. By day’s end, Platt had borne witness to an unprecedented attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob intent on halting the final step in the electoral process and forcefully reinstalling Donald Trump as president. In the mayhem outside the building, as rioters stormed metal barricades and attacked Capitol police officers, Platt trained his camera on a man in a red hoodie and black ballcap clutching an American flag while the crowd swirls around him. The man’s face is covered in a gas mask, but his eyes, visible behind the glass, turn toward Platt, acknowledging his camera just as the photo was taken.
Platt’s picture of the rioter has earned him a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, shared with four Getty colleagues whose collection of gripping photos chronicle the assault on the Capitol.
Recalling Jan. 6, Platt notes that at the morning rally outside the White House, Donald Trump was stationed behind bulletproof glass and a chain-link fence had been erected around the White House, unusual measures that seemed to indicate authorities had anticipated the possibility of extremist actions. When the rally ended and the crowd began to move toward the Capitol building, Platt moved with them.
He was shocked to see how unprepared the Capitol Police were for their arrival.
“The police were massively unprepared, as though they were caught off guard. Most of them weren’t wearing riot gear,” he recalls. “Everyone was unprepared for the magnitude and significance of what was occurring. If you were to ask me if I charged in knowing what this was going to be, the answer is: absolutely not.”
Platt has been listening to the proceedings of the House select committee investigating the attempted insurrection, which have revealed that most of the officials inside the Capitol chamber had underestimated both the intensity of and the calculation behind the protestors’ response.
“We’d all heard the tough talk, but it was just talk,” he says. “It’s starting to come out how detailed, organized, and planned this was.”
Platt likens the experience of navigating through the mob that day to being caught in a surging crowd at a rock concert or sporting event. “I could not move,” he remembers. “I eventually had to crawl through people and climb up scaffolding just to get around. It was unbelievable.”
Platt has won prestigious awards before, including the 2007 World Press Photo of the Year for his picture of young Lebanese citizens surveying bombing damage in Beirut during the Lebanon-Israel crisis in 2006. He was a Pulitzer finalist last year for his coverage of New York’s battle against COVID-19.
He learned that the Getty team had won the Pulitzer this year while he was returning from covering a homicide scene in Queens.
“I was driving my motorcycle home and my phone was blowing up in my back pocket,” he says. “I was on the BQE [Brooklyn Queens Expressway] and I pulled over in the breakdown lane. It was my editor, and he said, ‘We WON!’ I didn’t believe it at first until I had a chance to talk to him later. It’s an honor.”
As a seasoned photojournalist who started as a Worcester street photographer while a student at Clark, Platt is more inclined to pursue fresh stories than reflect on past triumphs. Such is the unpredictable life offered by a profession that can place you on the front line of history and forces you to keep moving through the crowd for the next great shot. When he looks at his Pulitzer-winning photo, Platt wonders what became of the man in the gas mask and what his motivations were for storming the Capitol, but as he notes, “We had no time to chat.”
A profile of Spencer Platt ’94 will appear in the fall issue of Clark magazine. To view his photography, check out his Instagram profile.