News / Asia

Q&A with Jeff Widener: 'Tank Man' Photographer

A man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square, June 5, 1989.
A man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square, June 5, 1989.
Perhaps the most iconic image from 25 years ago at Tiananmen Square was that of a Chinese man standing in the middle of the street halting the progression of several army tanks. The dramatic singular act on June 5, 1989 came to represent the spirit of struggle between ordinary citizens and a repressive government.
 
The identity of the man and his eventual fate remain unknown to this day. We do know who took the photograph - American Jeff Widener, who was working for the Associated Press. He shares his story of taking that photo, and tells VOA’s Jim Stevenson about the many obstacles that could have prevented the world from ever seeing it.
 
Q&A with Jeff Widener: 'Tank Man' Photographer
Q&A with Jeff Widener: 'Tank Man' Photographeri
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

WIDENER: I was the Southeast Asia picture editor for Associated Press, my job was basically to cover the southern region, however this story was building into something really big, so they wanted me to come up there and help out on the story. The problem was that the Beijing government didn’t want to give me a journalist’s visa and they denied it so I had to figure out another way to get into China.
 
So I booked a tour, I was coming in as a tourist. When I got in there, to the airport, I had to figure out a way to smuggle all of my camera gear in, and this is a big concern, I thought I might get arrested.
 
So fortunately, something was going on with an old lady and a chicken in the corner of the terminal, and all of the customs guys ran off to the side and left me alone and I just pushed the carts over to the waiting taxis and got to the AP office.  
 
From that point on, my job was to go to Tiananmen Square every morning and photograph the activities. And it was, you know, a very jovial experience, almost like a carnival atmosphere, everybody was celebrating this new freedom that they had. It was an amazing scene.
 
Eventually I was given the order to do the first night shift, and on the night of June 4th, I went out and things started really getting pretty heavy. There was a burning armored car. I lifted the camera to my eye at the second a giant, a large brick hit me in the face, the camera absorbed the blow and fortunately saved my life and then I had to get back to the AP office and file.
 
I didn’t go back out I was just too scared, I was sick, I had a massive concussion, and with a flash it would have been suicidal. And the following day I got a message again from AP, “we don’t want anyone to take any unnecessary risks, but if someone could please grab the occupied Tiananmen Square, we’d appreciate it.”
 
So I drew the small straw again and it was my job to go to the Beijing Hotel which had the closest vantage point. And I got there and I had to get past secret police, who were using electric cattle prods on the journalists. Fortunately, one young college kid from America named Kirk Martsen, he managed to smuggle me up into his room, and that’s where I made the Tank Man photograph.
 
STEVENSON: This must be an absolutely astounding scene that was playing out before your eyes as you’re watching this lone gentleman walk out into the street in front of a line of tanks.
 
WIDENER: Well, it was and it wasn’t, because you have to remember I had a massive concussion. I was really spaced out and nothing was really making a lot of sense to me, so seeing a guy walk out in the middle of a boulevard with shopping bags and confronting tanks just seemed par for the course. And actually, when I saw the tanks coming down to the street, I lined up my 400 mm lens and I thought, “well, you know, this is a nice shot,” and a guy walks out and the first things I said was, “this guy is going to screw up my composition.” And then Kirk is screaming “they’re going to kill him! They’re going to kill him!”
 
And so, you know, I looked at this guy just waiting for the instant he’s going to be, you know, shot, but nothing happened. You know, he’s just still there, standing there. So, I realized the picture was too far away, and I looked back at the bed where I had a lens doubler, this would increase my focal length to 800 mm, so the situation was, do I gamble and maybe miss the shot completely or do I go and try to increase the magnification to get a better picture?
 
Well I did that, and I took three frames. And I realized there was something wrong with my camera setting and the shutter speed was too slow, and by that time “Tank Man” was taken away. It was an error I made on the sensitivity of the film, but fortunately one picture came out.
 
STEVENSON: How were you able to get your film out of there with so much security in the hotel?
 
WIDENER: Well, thank God for Kirk Martsen, because he was instrumental in not only getting me to the roof to photograph the occupied Tiananmen Square, which is my main goal, but he also helped me get this film past the secret police.
 
You know, he just looked, you know, sort of like a college student, he had short pants on, sandals, a dirty “Rambo” t-shirt. You know, he just looked like a, you know, young kid. And so he smuggled all of my film into his shorts, and I remember standing on the balcony, looking straight below me, and you could see the security guys – they were all sitting there have a smoke break, and Kirk just strolls right by them. You know, one of the most iconic images, and one of the most embarrassing images for China, and he just walks by these guys with their cigarettes, gets on a bicycle, slowly unchains it, and I’m just looking down saying “go, go, go, go,” and then he gets on the bike and starts pedaling away, although a little bit awkwardly, because all of the film is in his, you know, shorts, and it’s a painful experience I guess riding with that much film in your shorts, but he goes looking for the AP office and he can’t find it, [and he] is smart enough to think about going to the American Embassy, tell them it’s very important film and it needs to go to AP.
 
Fortunately, the American Embassy did that, they transferred the film over to the office and it was transmitted to the rest of the world.  He probably risked his life doing that.
 
STEVENSON: With the immediacy of television where you could see these images just down the street from your location, and radio – you were dealing with film in that era. I mean, it wasn’t like a digital camera of today, and then this [film] had to be developed and then transmitted.
 
WIDENER: Well, you’re right about that, and in fact, that impact form the rock that hit me, it hit the camera when it was to my face. It ripped the entire top of the camera off, the flash, the lens; it shattered the mirror and bent the titanium shutter curtain – that’s how strong the impact was, and when we got the film back to the office, Mark Avery who was the photo editor then for AP, he had to go in the dark room, and literally take pliers to pry the film out to develop it. 
 
The other thing that’s interesting about that is that because we were so busy, the chemicals were not refreshed properly. The “Tank Man” negative started disintegrating almost immediately, and fortunately AP managed to preserve it long enough digitally before it completely disintegrated. And right now, basically the negative is just gone completely.
___________________________________________________________________
One other interesting caveat to the story, Jeff Widener had run out of film and was fortunate enough to secure a roll from a tourist. That was the film used for the “Tank Man” photo.

Jim Stevenson

For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.

You May Like

Beloved Lion Killing Sparks Virtual, Real Life Outrage

Twitter, as usual, was epicenter for anger directed at Palmer, with some questioning his manhood, calling for him to be released into the wild More

Video Booming London Property Market a Haven for Dirty Money

Billions of dollars from proceeds of crime, especially from Russia, being laundered through London property market, according to anti-corruption activists More

Video Scouts' Decision on Gays Meets Acceptance in Founder's Hometown

One former Scout leader thinks organization will move past political, social debate, get back to its primary focus of turning boys into good citizens More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Scouts' Decision on Gays Meets Acceptance in Founder's Hometown

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs