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The story behind this viral image from Capitol unrest

Reuters photographer Leah Millis reflects on the moment she took a now-viral image depicting the unrest at the Capitol.
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather in Washington
Leah Millis, a photographer for Reuters, was on hand Wednesday to capture the chaos at the Capitol.Leah Millis / Reuters
/ Source: TODAY

Leah Millis has seen a lot in her time as a professional photographer, but nothing quite compares to the scene she saw unfold in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

The Reuters photographer started her work day at around 11 a.m. on the East side of Capitol Hill and began taking photos of a growing crowd of protesters. Around 1 p.m., one of Millis' colleagues let her know that a group on the other side of the Capitol was attempting to get past the fences and police line. That's when she sprang into action.

"I ran down Independence Ave. and cut up across the lawn. I was afraid the police would create a line and I wouldn’t be able to get in. As I came upon the scene, I saw hundreds, maybe thousands, of people streaming up to the Capitol from the Mall," Millis, 32, told TODAY.

One of the crowd shots Millis took on Wednesday.Leah Millis / Reuters

Millis, who has worked for Reuters for three years, put her gas mask and ballistic helmet on and ran into the crowd.

"People were bunching up against a very thin line of police who were trying to hold them back with a few barricades (and) the occasional pepper spray. ... The police did not have gas masks on, so often they were also getting pepper spray from their own spray, but they were also being pepper-sprayed by people in the crowd," she explained.

Millis had to find a way to safely cover the events, so she put her gas mask on and sprung into action.Leah Millis / Reuters

As the crowd continued to clash with the police, Millis heard them cheering at the sound of several flash bangs. Eventually, they pushed past the police line and some began climbing the scaffolding and climbing the stairs. At that moment, Millis had to determine how she was going to safely proceed and capture the scene.

"I had decided not to climb the scaffolding on the sides because I was worried about it coming down as there were numerous people climbing onto it, climbing up it from various angles and banging on it and shaking it. I didn’t climb the center one because it looked dangerous and I was not sure if the people on the scaffolding would allow me to be there," she recalled.

The photographer captured several key moments from the events of Jan. 6. Leah Millis / Reuters

When Millis realized that the crowd was trying to get inside the door on the level above her, she climbed the center scaffolding up two levels. Once there, she saw a large crowd that had broken through the doors and were battling with police in the hallway of the Capitol building.

"There was also a group who had broken into a window next to them who were climbing in and out of a room, removing furniture. This scene went on for over an hour before a law enforcement person in green fatigues showed up at the door and began firing flash bangs and tear gas into the crowd, finally breaking them up," she told TODAY.

Millis was on hand to cover the rapidly evolving situation.Leah Millis / Reuters

The photographer realized she should be taking wide photographs as well as long lens images to help capture the context of the scene, and began doing so when the flash bangs were going off. One of those images, a scene that showed a flash of light and an explosion around the Capitol caused by a police munition, has since gone viral and has become a symbol of the chaotic scene.

An explosion caused by a police munition was photographed by Millis.Leah Millis / Reuters

Since she was right in the thick of the action, Millis didn't have time to pause and reflect on how it would be received, and she simply sent the shot along to her team. Besides, she had other things to occupy her mind.

"I was getting nervous because I was two stories up on some scaffolding while the crowd below me was starting to flee from munitions. On top of that my hands were freezing cold, so I was also nervous about climbing down and being able to grip the metal properly," she recalled.

Millis said she still hasn't fully processed the events of this week.Leah Millis / Reuters

Two days have gone by, but Millis said she still hasn't processed the events of this week. She is, however, feeling humbled that her photograph has made such an impact.

"Seeing the photograph and people responding to it is somewhat therapeutic because I feel that I have done my job to the best of my ability to translate the feeling of the day and of the past few months," she said.

It's been a whirlwind week and Millis said she hasn't even looked at her photos from Wednesday yet.Leah Millis / Reuters

The photographer said she hopes her now-viral photo and others from the day help "wake the country up," and she expressed her gratitude for her colleagues.

"All of the journalists out there (on Wednesday) risked their lives to show the country and the world what was happening. I am so proud of them and thankful for their hard work and dedication," she said. "I know journalists who were attacked inside and outside of the Capitol building. I hope the public also recognizes that a free press is also an important part of our democracy."