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.
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.