If Tank Man Protested Tomorrow, Would We Even Know About It?

It was June 5th 1989 when the man now only known as Tank Man or The Unknown Protester stepped out in front of a line of Chinese tanks to stop them leaving Tienanmen Square. This was the morning after the Massacre at Tienanmen Square when the protesters who had been peacefully protesting for over one month were killed by their own army. Tank Man walked in front of the tanks with two shopping bags and waited. The tanks stopped and then tried to move around him. He side stepped in front of the tanks again until they turned off their engine, Tank Man then climbed on top of the lead tank and appeared to have a conversation with the tank commander. Jumping down from the tank and they tried to move forward again. As they did Tank Man stood in front of the tanks blocking their way until two security officials appeared in blue uniforms and dragged him to the side.

The Chinese communist party would say this moment showed the humanity of the Chinese army. To the rest of the world it showed that people were still willing to stand up to the government, even after this same government had killed and were still killing protesters. Although the image of tank man is known around the world, in China itself, where there is tight internet censorship, young people publicly say they don’t know about the incident and when shown photographs believe the images are art.

There was not just one image of Tank man though; in fact there are five each with a slightly different angle and each with their own story of how they got the image out of China while the military was cracking down on the protesters and preventing the media from reporting what was happening.

Charlie Cole

Charlie Cole was on assignment for Newsweek. On the 5th of June he was unsure what was happening in the city as information had been suppressed and the army was on street corners. He and  Stuart Franklin who had been photographing a lot together went back to the Beijing Hotel  and stood on the balcony to see what they could of the square. They noticed a column of tanks coming down street. They both watched the scene unfold photographing the whole time  and amazed at what they had captured, but Cole soon became every concerned that their activity had been seen by the PSB (Security Forces) and if they raided the room then the images would be lost.

Down to three rolls of film; one with the Tank Man Images, a second with the confrontation between the army and the protesters from the day before as well as wounded protesters in the hospital and an unexposed roll. Knowing it would look suspicious if both his cameras had no film, he sacrificed his protester shots and left that roll in the camera. He took out his film with Tank Man and loaded the camera with a blank roll of film. The roll with the Tank Man was wrapped in a plastic bag and put in the cistern of the toilet. Within an hour the PSB (Chinese Security Forces) arrived searched the room, found his cameras and opened and exposed the film inside. Happy that they had destroyed all the evidence of Tank Man’s intersection they made Cole sign a confession that he had been photographing during marshal law.

Later when he he was able to, he retrieved his roll of film and headed to the AP offices where he developed the film and managed to get the shot transmitted to the US in time for his deadline.

Photo by Charlie Cole

Photo by Charlie Cole

The image is a tight crop, with repeating diagonal lines from top right to bottom left helping to show the momentum and force of the tanks. The three tanks are imposing when contrasted against the small white figure of Tank Man. For me the strength of the image comes from the pattern of threes being broken by this solitary white object, forcing us the viewer to notice him and making the image not about the imposing force of the military but of this lone man stopping an unstoppable force.

Stuart Franklin

Stuart Franklin a Magnum photographer was no assignment for Time Magazine. He had arrived in Beijing at the beginning of May and had been photographing the protests. He has said that the protests were full of life, artist and poets were present along side those who were on hunger strike. After a few weeks at the beginning of June everything changed in the square as the army came in and trapped everyone. Franklin left the pretest early on the morning of the 5th and woke up to the city in lock down. The Beijing Hotel where he was staying was locked down with security forces at the doors preventing information from getting out. Many journalists, although they were staying in the Beijing Hotel the food there was not good and they went to a hotel closer to the airport that sold hamburgers. These journalists found themselves trapped outside of the city. With Cole and two other photographers on the 5th floor balcony they tried to photograph events as they unfolded, but as with all film photographers they were worried about running out of 36 frames. Franklin remembers that at some point shots were fired and he saw the tanks coming down the road, then a lone protester blocked the road. Franklin has said that the protester seemed not to have acted on instinct but this was premeditated as he was calm and not distressed.

After he had got the shot he spent the rest of the day trying to get access to hospitals to photograph the victims of the massacre from the  day before. He was amazed that there were not more dead as most people were students being treated in any spare space that could be found. Later he discovered that the dead had been moved to a children’s hospital so as to avoid the glare of the media.
Franklin eventually got his film smuggled out in a packet of tea by a French student who was returning to Paris and delivered the roll to the magnum offices there. This was not uncommon as it was quicker and less expensive than using traditional courier. It was not uncommon to find photographers waiting in airports to find some one to take a roll of film for you.

Photo by Stuart Franklin

Photo by Stuart Franklin

Franklin’s shot is a looser composition than Cole’s and still has the repeating diagonals but more tanks can be seen. Compared to Cole’s shot, Franklin’s seems less intense but more daunting. With so much empty space and with the exception of a burnt out bus in the background, shows how much control the government had in the area. Since the shot is much wider, Tank Man seems even smaller making his defiance a greater act against the rest of the scene. The looming shadow to the left of the frame is like the smoke of a dying fire, be it the protest or the remnants of violence acted out on the protesters and in a way as it is creeping across the frame, a foreshadowing of what will happen to Tank Man as he is pulled off to the side by security officials.

Jeff Widener

Jeff Widener’s picture was the most circulated image and has a very similar composition to Cole’s and Franklin’s image. Jeff on the 5th of June was sick and suffering from a slight concussion after having a rock thrown at his head the night before when the army entered the square. That morning he got to the AP office which was located in a diplomatic compound and saw the message from AP America, asking for more Tienanmen Square photographs but not wanting people to take unnecessary risks. Believing that the Beijing hotel had the best vantage point, the same place that Cole and Frankin were in, Widener managed to smuggle his equipment past the security services that were inhibiting the work of journalists with the help of a college kid named Kirk (or Kurk). They went to the 6th floor of the hotel and found a room with a balcony, Widener started shooting and going though film fast. He got Kirk to see if he could get him some more and Kirk returned with one roll of ISO 100 film. With the last film loaded he waited and dozed off. The sound of tanks in the distance woke him  and he saw the tanks come down the road. He lined up his shot and then tank man jumped in front of the tanks ruining his composition. Realizing what he was witnessing, he jumped on the bed and grabbed his teleconverter doubling his focal length. After a few shots he realised that he was shooting at about 1/30 1/60 of a second which, with his now 800mm focal length was not fast enough for the images to be sharp and then the moment was gone.

Worried about how to get his film out of the hotel it asked Kirk to smuggle it out, who was going to believe that this long hair college kid was in fact a journalist. Kirk got the images to the AP offices. The images were used although they weren’t very sharp. The next day he was informed that his shots were front page on nearly all the European newspaper.

Photo by Jeff Widener

Photo by Jeff Widener

As with Coles image Jeff Widener’s has the same power except an added element which seems distracting at first but in fact was a brilliant addition. The lamppost that is in frame, middle foreground, has some significance. Due to the restriction on the Chinese media, people would spread news and information via these lampposts, in a way it was the twitter of the modern freedom movements of today. This standing diagonally parallel with Tank Man is a symbol that it doesn’t matter what the authority does we have a way of communicating the truth, a silent observer of an act of defiance.

Arthur Tsang Hin Wah

Arthur was in Beijing for Reuters and had been beaten up two days before the 5th of June by students who thought that he was a spy working for the CCP. In the morning like the others he heard gunshots and decided that it was not safe to go back to the square and decided to head up to the 11th floor of the hotel.

From the balcony on the 11th floor Arthur could see the square and about 100 tanks, some people were protesting near the hotel and the army opened fire upon them. As he photographed from the balcony, the security services watched from across the road. At times bullets hit the hotel rooms as the army fired their guns into the air warning people to clear the streets.

A rumour started that the security services were going to clear the hotel and a lot of Chinese journalists fled the building. The tanks from the square started to move and drove down the street until Tank Man stepped out in front of the column.
Arthur got pictures of Tank Man in front of the tank and then climbing on board and talking to the tank commander. Certain that he got a great shot he called his office and a colleague came and picked up the film. For two days Arthur stayed at the hotel as everyone else left.  Reuters choose the shot of Tank Man climbing up the tank instead of him blocking the tanks that the other news agencies had run. The office called Arthur the next day asking for the now iconic image and Arthur told them it was on the film. Although the image was run, his competitors had got their images out 12 hours before.

Photo by Arthur Tsang Hin Wah

Photo by Arthur Tsang Hin Wah

Arthur’s Image of Tank Man is framed within two poles. This separation gives the impression that the image has been spliced together and what is happening in the center of the frame has been added there. For me this sends a message that this act of protest is not uncommon and that the people protest very often in quite ways but at this moment in time the protest has erupted to the surface splitting the image. The central crop also echoes that of what the other photographers captured.

Terril Jones

Unlike the other photographers mentioned above, Terril Jones was not in the Beijing Hotel but on the ground and captured a unique perspective of this historical event.
Jones photographed as well as filmed a lot of the protests in Tienanmen Square.

On the 5th of June, Jones was extremely tied as he had been on shifts in Tienanmen Square since the middle of May with a few other AP photographers. He was forced onto the street by the adrenaline of the moment and wanting to stay close to the action. On the street in front of the Beijing Hotel shots were fired and people ran down the road heading towards Jones. Jones turned his camera towards the people and took a picture and then ducked behind cover.
Jones stayed in Beijing for a month before he headed back to Japan. It was only once he had developed the film in Japan he realized he had caught the famous Tank man in his shot. He kept the image locked up along with the video he had filmed and showed them to only a few people, until 2009 on the twentieth anniversary of Tienanmen Square and published his image of Tank Man.

Photo by Terrill Jones

Photo by Terrill Jones

Jone’s image is completely different to everyone else’s for two reason, firstly it is taken from eye level and you get an close up view of the aftermath of the crackdown. The second is that in the confusion of the image Tank Man is not the central subject but one part of the image which in reality he was. The protests were not just Tank Man but a millions of people in the square who are either dead, in hiding or silenced from speaking out. Tank Man was solitary part of this.

If Tank Man Protested Tomorrow, Would We Even Know About It?

The image of Tank Man ended up being the image of the protest and the massacre not because it showed what happened but because it sums up what was happening; the “people” standing up against the government in a peaceful manner in contrast to the violence of the government.
In our modern print media, the photography departments are the first to go as organizations tighten their belts. Comments were recently made by the judges of the world press photography award about the quality of work due to lack of money in newspapers budgets and therefore the lack of time photographers have to create a narrative in their images.

Think of the world today, crisis in Ukraine, Egypt, Syria as well as multiple countries in Africa. How long are photographers on assignment there? Are they there when the sparks are lit, do they stay past the waning interest of the 24 hour news cycle. In reading the photographers stories, I wonder if Tienanmen Square happened today would tank man’s protest be photograph. I doubt it. The photographers at Tienanmen Square spent time there, making connections, getting to know people working their way around the city. I also wonder if there would have been a photographer even there. I feel that today although we have satellite images and stock feeds from the national media or one of the “citizen journalists”, how much of this can we trust this being impartial, like a photojournalist on the ground. When journalists do make it on the scene, they don’t have the connections to be where they need to be. Recently and I am thinking about the BBC and CNN reporting in Ukraine, journalists were  harassed by the local people crowds they tried to film in because they had no understanding of where they were.

The Tank Man image was captured by five photographers while many of the other journalists who were closer to the airport were then trapped outside of the city. Tank Man’s sacrifice was frozen in time for the world to see, remember and stands as an image of the Tienanmen Square protest and massacre. The image deserves to be remembered as well as the lengths the photographers went to make sure the world knew what was happening. Today the photographers would be trapped outside the city because they would have arrived late to the party, since our modern media does not value the work of the photojournalists.

(Sources; PetaPixel, Guardian UK, NY Times, BBC News and Wikipedia)

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19 thoughts on “If Tank Man Protested Tomorrow, Would We Even Know About It?

  1. Thanks for this, a great story. In your post, the photos by Stuart Franklin and Jeff Widener are identical. Did you mis-link one of them? I was going to reblog your post, but thought I’d wait to see if there was a mistake, before so doing.

  2. A really interesting article, its quite amazing to think about how these images were captured and the lengths the photographers go to get them. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Those who capture images in such situations are the unsung heros of our world, they may not fight with weapons but they do with the information they record and send out to the world. Thanks for taking the time to comment Katie.

  3. Fantastic piece of work. Thanks so much for putting in all of the time it must have taken to assemble this information. I was reading the NYT today and there was an article by a female (AP I believe) reporter who went around Bejing with one of these photos and asked 100 sChinese students if they knew where it was taken. Only 15 had any idea of what it was. Thanks for posting this.

  4. one of the best blog posts I have read. I was not in HK last night but there were ~180,000 people in and around Victoria Park commemorating the anniversary. Reblogged.

  5. A wonderful piece of post-event reportage. The media situation regarding photographers is now exactly as you say, and is to be deeply, DEEPLY regretted. It has to be photo-journalists, now – and they are not as good, as words carry more weight for them than do images. And anyway, there are very few of those who understand as much as they need about cameras, lenses and the range of support equipment.

  6. This is an excellent piece of work, Ben. Aside from a very nice compilation of stories around the image, it is also astutely to the point regarding the current news cycle. There are a handful of “journalists” practicing today…..the rest just seem to be highly paid news readers and are only onsite to appear involved.

    • Thanks Steve, the fate of photojournalism esp in the local press is in the hands of journalists with Iphones or the so called “citizen reporters”, who are made to feel as if they are contributing to the recording of history, when infact they are a cheap way to get content.

  7. Great article, Ben. I appreciate it a lot. I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate it after I read it, but I didn’t know where to start. Hat off to all brave photographers. I admire them!
    On a different subject… with all those possible post-processing available, I wonder if we trust what we see in photographs like before.
    You are a true teacher (hope I say it right. ) Thanks.

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