30 years ago in early June of 1989 was the famous protests for Democracy at Tinanmen Square in Beijing, China. As one who is learning Chinese and was also born in June of 1989, the events that took place at Tiananmen Square have always intrigued me. There are several layers to this historical event that I find to be particularly interesting:
First, there's the mystery surrounding who "Tank Man" is: The man who became a symbol of the struggle for democracy and freedom. Nobody knows who he is, what happened to him, and whether he's still alive. The same goes for the soldiers in the tanks that refused to kill him. They all have families and yet none of them have spoken out about what happened. As Jeff Widener, the photographer who took this shot said, it's as if they all disappeared like they're in the Twilight Zone. Where did they go? Why is nobody willing to say all these years later?
Secondly, there's the story behind the photo itself. The night before, Widener was hit with bricks and all sorts of debris, suffering a concussion and a bloody nose. On top of that, his camera was badly damaged. The people at the Associated Press office in Beijing had to pry the film out of the camera in the dark room when he came back that night.
On the day that he took the "Tank Man" photo, Widener headed to the Beijing Hotel with his reporter to scope the scene that was unfolding at Tiananmen Square. This was where all the journalists were heading to get a feel for the chaos that was starting to ensue. Widener describes it as the scariest assignment he has ever been on.
When they reached the roof of the Beijing Hotel, Widener and his reporter were concerned they might get picked off by snipers as they looked out over the balcony. Despite this concern, they pressed on and courageously did their jobs. When they saw "Tank Man" emerge in front of the tank, the first thing Widener thought was that this guy was going to mess up his composition. He was certain he was going to be killed. Then, after waiting for a few seconds and seeing that nothing is happening, Widener decided to gamble and grab his teleconverter to put it on the lens and quickly take the shot of the century.
Third, there's the mystery surrounding why the Chinese government doesn't own up to what happened. While some people in China are unaware of what happened, Widener gave off the impression that most people have at least a vague sense of what happened. This due to contact with places like Hong Kong and Taiwan in addition to the presence of VPNs. It's almost as if China won't admit that it happened even though they know people know. It's weird.
Anyways, I thought on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests it would be appropriate to have a discussion about it. I also think those that are into photography would find it interesting as well. The protests are fascinating as is the story behind the famous "Tank Man" photo. So many layers!
Note: I've provided a couple of links to some interviews with Widener below. He tells the story much better than I do.