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June 4, 2014

Stories Behind the “Tank Man” of the Iconic Tiananmen’s Photographs in 1989

Twenty-five years ago today, the Tank Man, the nickname of an anonymous man who stood in front of a column of tanks on June 5, 1989, the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 by force. The man achieved widespread international recognition due to the videotape and photographs taken of the incident. Some have identified the man as Wang Weilin (王維林), but the name has not been confirmed and little is known about him or of his fate after the confrontation that day.

Five photographers managed to capture the event on film and get their pictures published in its aftermath. On June 4, 2009, another photographer released an image of the scene taken from ground level. Today, images of what happened at Tiananmen Square are still blocked on the Internet in China due to what John Palfrey of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has described as “the world's most sophisticated means of Internet filtering.”

The most used photograph of the event was taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, from a sixth floor balcony of the Beijing Hotel, about half a mile (800 meters) away from the scene. Widener was injured and suffering from flu. The image was taken using a Nikon FE2 camera through a Nikkor 400mm 5.6 ED IF lens and TC-301 teleconverter. Low on film, a friend hastily obtained a roll of Fuji 100 ASA color negative film, allowing him to make the shot. Though he was concerned that his shots were not good, his image was syndicated to a large number of newspapers around the world, and was said to have appeared on the front page of all European papers.

Photo: Jeff Widener/Associated Press

Another version was taken by Stuart Franklin of Magnum Photos from the fifth floor of the Beijing Hotel. His has a wider field of view than Widener's, showing more tanks farther away. He was on the same balcony as Charlie Cole, and his roll of film was smuggled out of the country by a French student, concealed in a box of tea.

Photo: Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Charlie Cole, working for Newsweek and on the same balcony as Stuart Franklin, hid his roll of film containing Tank Man in a Beijing Hotel toilet, sacrificing an unused roll of film and undeveloped images of wounded protesters after the PSB raided his room, destroyed the two rolls of film just mentioned and forced him to sign a confession. Cole was able to retrieve the roll and have it sent to Newsweek. He won a World Press Award for a similar photo. It was featured in Life’s “100 Photographs That Changed the World” in 2003.

Photo: Charlie Cole/Newsweek

On June 4, 2009, in connection with the 20th anniversary of the protests, Associated Press reporter Terril Jones revealed a photo he took showing the Tank Man from ground level, a different angle than all of the other known photos of the Tank Man. Jones has written that he was not aware of what he had captured until a month later when printing his photos.

Photo: Terril JonesAssociated Press

Arthur Tsang Hin Wah of Reuters took several shots from room 1111 of the Beijing Hotel, but only the shot of Tank Man climbing the tank was chosen. It was not until several hours later that the photo of the man standing in front of the tank was finally chosen. When the staff noticed Widener’s work, they re-checked Wah’s negative to see if it was of the same moment as Widener's. Later, on March 20, 2013, in an interview by the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association (HKPPA), Wah told the story and added further detail. He told HKPPA that on the night of June 3, 1989, he was beaten by students while taking photos and was bleeding. A “foreign” photographer accompanying him suddenly said “I am not gonna die for your country” and left. Wah returned to the hotel. When he decided to go out again, the public security stopped him, so he stayed in his room, stood next to the window and eventually witnessed the Tank Man and took several shots on June 4, 1989.

Photo: Arthur Tsang Hin Wah/Reuters

Just as powerful as the photos, this video of the Tiananmen Square Tank Man is utterly mesmerizing.



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