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TANK MAN: The untold story behind one of the world’s most famous photographs

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image Photographer Jeff Widner

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but what about when that picture represents the unspoken hopes of an entire generation? On June 5th 1989, American photojournalist Jeff Widener was standing on the balcony of the Beijing hotel overlooking Tiananmen Square when he took an extraordinary photograph that would become known the world over, and one that would ultimately change the course of his career.
That picture was of a lone man standing his ground defiantly in front of a line of tanks. The “Tank Man” image, as it later came to be known, would become a symbol of defiance, an image embodying an entire nation’s crushed hopes for democracy. Unfortunately that picture has been officially blacked out in mainland China; it’s been scrubbed out of textbooks and official media channels, but nevertheless 25 years later, it still remains a global icon.
Last Saturday, speaking in Hong Kong at the “New, Now, Next Media Conference” co-organized by the Asia chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) and the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, Jeff Widner described his astonishing experience on that fateful day back in 1989. In a question and answer session with CNN journalist Kristie LuStout together with a short interview he gave MDT afterwards, he spoke about how he was able to take the image and smuggle it out of the country, the constraints of working in such a dangerous setting, and the impact his picture still has 25 years on.

Macau Daily Times - When we look at this image it looks so still and peaceful. Remind us of the circumstances surrounding when you were taking it because there were bullets flying around the square and the vicinity?
Jeff Widener - It was pretty intense. There were other photographs of this [4 images were released in total]. The ground level one came out on the 20th anniversary... And it gave a different perspective. But if you look at the other 3 tank pictures, they’re all a bit different in the sense that they have a defiant feel to them. He’s holding the shopping bags and you can see he’s very stiff, very defiant. My photo is different basically because of the gamble that I took to go and get a teleconverter from the back, which would increase the focal length to an 800mm. And in that period of time, he then walked up on top of the tank.
And you know it’s funny, because Time magazine interviewed me a few weeks ago and they showed me this video footage, and there was gunfire. And I do not remember this gunfire. So I’m wondering if I’d blocked that out somehow. But the reason my guy is passive is because he’s just getting ready to leave, and he’s making a final stance. And I like my picture a lot because of this “Gandhi” feel to it.

MDT - Looking at archival video, he’s taunting the tanks, he’s standing in front of them, and at one point he gets on top of the tank; he moves to the side, the tank tries to get around him, he moves in front of it again; he’s very aggressive. But you captured this moment – you call it “Gandhi-like” – that stillness, and was that the moment you were waiting for? Or was it just the moment that came out?
JW - I was very lucky I didn’t screw up this picture very badly, because I’d run completely out of film and Kirk Martsen, an American college student that I’d met who smuggled me into his room, I asked him if he could get some more film, and fortunately he found some film. But it was one roll. One roll of Fuji ISO 100 film. I normally shoot 800. So even though I loaded it into the camera and automated the exposure so everything was correct, I’m thinking in my mind, looking at the light, that I have a very high shutter speed.
When I took the picture, I took 1,2,3 shots and I see 1/30th of a second. If you know anything about photography that’s an impossible photo. And it was a miracle that came up. And to this day, I can’t figure out how that came out.
 
MDT - It’s a miracle you were able to get the film, capture the shot, and also to get the footage out, to smuggle the negatives out. Tell us that story.

JW - Kirk was instrumental on several things. You know when I arrived there, I had to get past secret police. Fortunately Kirk was standing in the shadows of the lobby of the Beijing hotel. And several journalists were there. The problem was they were using an electric cattle prod. Ad when the journalists wouldn’t give up their notebooks and their cameras they would get shot. So I hid all my camera gear. I still was concerned about being stopped at the front door, and so basically when I saw Kirk, I went up to him and said, “Hey Joe, what’s going on”, and I pretended like I knew him. And I said, I’m from Associated Press, can you let me in?” and he says Yeah, come on up”. And he said just 10 minutes before I had arrived, a truck load of soldiers came by and they shot several tourists in the front of the lobby and they dragged their bodies back into the hotel.
He just barely missed getting killed himself; he hid behind a taxi. So when I got to the room up there, finally I asked him if he could put all the film together and smuggle it out to the agency office, which he did. And it was funny, because I remember looking down on him over the balcony, and he’s walking right by these secret police guys in these white overalls on their smoke break. And little do these guys know that this long-haired college kid in shorts and sandals is walking right past them carrying one of the most iconic photos in history, and also a huge embarrassment to China, right past them as they’re smoking cigarettes. And he gets on the bicycle and pedals right away and heads over to the American embassy where it was then transferred over to the AP office. So it’s a miracle. He risked his life – there was a lot of shooting going on – and he had to sneak his way to the back streets to get that film to the AP office. And if it wasn’t for him, that tank picture would never have been seen by the rest of the world.
 
MDT - It’s incredible, that act of bravery by someone who was a stranger who you didn’t know.
JW – A total stranger. And I tried for 20 years to find Kirk, to thank him. I lost total contact until the New York Times ran a story on the 20th anniversary, and one day I was at home on the computer, and all of a sudden my AOL said, You’ve got mail!” and I looked and [a message saying] “Hi Jeff, I smuggled your film out in my underwear in Tiananmen Square” and I just said, “Kirk, where you been?” so we reconnected.
 
MDT - So when you took this image did you have any inkling that it would be as impactful as it’s become?
JW - You know I had a massive concussion from the rock that hit me in the face the night of June 4th. It was a burning armored car incident. I was so whacked out, so dizzy all the time, I was sick with the flu. You know I took this photograph over the balcony and by that time after all the things I’d seen, it didn’t seem that unusual for somebody to walk out in the street and stop tanks. Because everything seemed so incredible.
It was probably, you know, I knew it was a good picture, I won a lot of awards. But it probably never sunk in until, again, AOL 10 years later. They had all these iconic images from wen I was a child in my photo class, Eddie Adams’ picture, Vietnam, Buzz Aldrin on the moon, the Hindenburg crash, all these famous iconic photos. And then there’s this flash of color and it’s my Tank Man. I looked at that and it’s like a bolt of lightening hit me, like something incredible, I guess something extraordinary. And that’s when it hit me the first time 10 years later.

MDT – You were using rolls of film and you almost didn’t get the image. Nowadays people can see their pictures come up immediately on their digital cameras. What was it like risking so much to know maybe the image wouldn’t have turned out right?
JW - Well you know, you just have to go where the story is and hope you don’t get killed! So film was a pain in the ass, it really was; because it was sensitive, the chemicals you had to worry about, there were so many things that could go wrong with an image.
Today, you take a digital image and it’s ready and it goes; but back in those days to separate the men from the boys, you had to know how to transmit photos, how to develop photos, how to set up an operation. You had to go into a hotel room and strip it completely apart to put together a lab and an office and you really had to know what you were doing back then. Nowadays it’s a lot simpler, so that’s the biggest difference from the old days.


 
MDT - I know a lot of people must have asked you this question already, but who is Tank Man? Do you know what happened to him?
JW - Who knows? I heard different rumors, and we really don’t know. But what I find fascinating and unbelievable is that it’s not just one guy. It’s the guy, his family, his relatives. What happened to the tank crew? Where’s the driver? Where are the family members of the entire tank crew? There’s maybe 20, 30, 40, 50 people, relatives; they’re all related to this whole incident that happened. Where are they? Somebody must know something. It’s like they were all erased from planet Earth. This is extraordinary, I can’t bring this out at all.

MDT – As a journalist, during those days covering the protests, what was the moment that most struck you?
JW - If anyone in the press corps had told you that they were totally unbiased, that this did not affect them emotionally, then I don’t think they’re being truthful. You have a square, and you have a Goddess of Democracy going up, which is basically a replica of the Statue of Liberty, directly across the street from the giant Mao portrait.
So you have this democracy versus communism thing going on, and we were really surprised that the Beijing government didn’t crack down on it immediately. So for several days this was going on, it was just amazing to see it.
 
MDT - You described it earlier as a stare-down, the eyes of the Goddess of Democracy statue and the portrait of Mao.
JW - Yeah it was a stare-down. I can imagine how concerned the leadership was when they had this going on. They had to do something. I mean everybody knew this couldn’t last for ever… You know there was so such tension building, and a lot of these soldiers were actually very scared. They were not sure if these protesters, if one thing set them off, they would just start beating up, hurting, injuring them… On June 3rd, what we were expecting started to take place.
 
MDT -  When did the situation start to get dangerous?
JW - This was when things started to get pretty hairy. The night of June 3rd, it must have been around 10 or 11pm, I was near the Great Hall of the People, and a burning armored car came around the corner so fast, there were sparks flying off the treads. And I really started to get scared so I jumped into some ivy to get away.
My reporter dropped his bicycle and ran off and I never saw him again the rest of the night. You know what it’s like to be physically scared to death and have to get out and run towards the thing that’s scaring you? Because all you want to do is run in the opposite direction as fast as you can.
 
MDT– And despite that you still went on. What happened shortly after that in the next few moments?
JW - A little while later, right after that, I’m trying to get back to the AP office to get more film and supplies, and as I’m riding the bicycle to the office, this burning armored car comes right toward me. And by this time I’m literally only able to take one picture every 60 seconds.
Can you imagine being in one of the biggest news stories of the 20th century as a photographer and you can only take one picture every minute? One guy was rolling around on the floor caught in flames, people are trying to put him out and I can’t take a picture, I’m just waiting, waiting, waiting. And finally somebody grabs my arm and they’re ripping my cameras up. I’m getting strangled and I take out my American passport and I put it over my head, and I just start screaming “American! American”. Then a guy came over, the leader of the pack, he takes it and looks at it and says, “Ok, you photo, you photo”. The crowd moves away a little bit. I looked on the ground and there’s a dead soldier.
All of a sudden I lift the camera to my face and, “Boom!’ My head jerks back, I look down and blood’s all over me, the whole top of the camera’s ripped off, the lens is ripped off, the mirror’s been shattered, the titanium and the camera has been bent. Everything’s spinning around. And then I look at the back of this burning armored car, the door opens up and a soldier comes out to surrender. He puts his arms over his head; the crowd looks at him for a second – I still remember his uniform, how well pressed it was – the mob moves on to him and I’m thinking to myself the look of horror on his face, I’m going to lose the Pulitzer prize, and then I thought I should be ashamed of myself for thinking that because he’s going to get killed.

MDT – As a journalist covering such a dangerous situation, you have to make the call between continuing to risk your life or heading back. What was that like for you?
JW - And so after that it was time to get back to the office [going] past burning buses, there was red tracers flying over the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. And when I got back to the AP office, Mark Avery our photo editor was filing pictures and he was crying. And I said, “What’s wrong?” and he said, “One of my Chinese friends was just killed. Don’t go back out there, they’re killing people”. And I had to make one of the most difficult decisions of my life.
As a journalist, do you want to go back out – I had the flu, I was sick, I was injured, I was scared to death – or do you go back to your room? I thought about it and I chickened out, I couldn’t do it. I just could not do it. You don’t know the torment I felt as a journalist because you’re there to cover this event but there just comes a point that something takes over in your brain – I guess it’s self-preservation – and it just says, “Don’t go any further”. And so I felt guilty, I felt ashamed, and I was just in awe of the courage these protesters showed out there. And I just felt really badly about the whole situation.
I remember going back to my hotel and I got there and ordered something to eat, I ordered room service – a cheeseburger – I turned on the TV, and there’s CNN and they got footage of flames coming up from burning buses and there’s soldiers, and there I am thinking there’s something wrong with this scenario. I’m here in the room eating a cheeseburger with room service and all these people down there on the street are risking their lives and I’m there in the room. But you know what? I think I made the right decision because in a flash when the military had orders to shoot journalists, in a flash I would have been a target and it would have been suicidal.
So I think I made the right decision and saved my life.

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