The Tank Man by Jeff Widener, 1989

This is a picture that needs no caption.

However, very few people know the behind-the-scene details of the events that transpired on June 5th, 1989. The day after Chinese troops expelled thousands of demonstrators from Tiananmen Square in Beijing (in a process that left thousands dead), the tanks returning from their mission at the Square were confronted with a lone rebel. The rebel’s identity is never revealed nor that of the commander in the lead tank who stopped.

Several photographers captured the moment of confrontation but the most-used photograph was by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press (being an AP photographer has advantage over being an independent or magazine photographer as your photos would be widely distributed over the wire). Widener remembered:

Sometime in the morning of June 5, 1989, I stumbled out of the Jianguo Hotel in Beijing and navigated my way past burned out buses and smashed bicycles to The Associated Press office. I was sick as a dog with the flu and suffering from a severe concussion. A stray rock had struck my face while photographing a burning armored car during the Tiananmen uprising. The Nikon F3 Titanium camera had had absorbed the shock and thus saved my life.

As I entered the A.P. office, which was located at the diplomatic compound, I read a message from A.P. headquarters in New York. “We don’t want anyone to take any unnecessary risk but if someone could please photograph Tiananmen Square, we would appreciate it.” Boy, that was not what I wanted to read following the terror I witnessed the night before.

I was really scared and very spaced out from the injury and I had to find the courage to make that long bicycle ride to the Beijing Hotel, which had the best vantage point. In the end, I managed to smuggle my camera gear into the Beijing Hotel and past security police, thanks to a young college kid named Kirk or Kurt. Two decades later, I still have not been able to locate him and express my gratitude. For without his help, the world would have lost a memorable image.

As I shot pictures out the sixth floor of the Beijing Hotel balcony, I was going through film pretty fast. Tanks crashed through burned out buses. Dead and wounded were peddled on little carts. I asked Kurt/Kirk to help find me some more film. He returned an hour later with one roll of Fuji 100 ASA color negative film. Only one tourist could be found in the deserted lobby. I normally shoot 800 ASA. This would be a critical factor later on.

I loaded the single roll of film in a Nikon FE2 camera body. It was small and had an auto-exposure meter. As I tried to sleep off the massive headache that pounded my head, I could hear the familiar sound of tanks in the distance. I jumped up. Kurt/Kirk followed me to the window. In the distance was a huge column of tanks. It was a very impressive sight. Being the perfectionist that I am, I waited for the exact moment for the shot.

Suddenly, some guy in a white shirt runs out in front and I said to Kurt/Kirk, “Damn it — that guy’s going to screw up my composition.” Kurt/Kirk shouted, “They are going to kill him!” I focused my Nikon 400mm 5.6 ED IF lens and waited for the instant he would be shot. But he was not.

The image was way too far away. I looked back at the bed and could see my TC-301 teleconverter. That little lens adapter could double my picture. With it, I could have a stronger image but then I might lose it all together if he was gone when I returned.

I dashed for the bed, ran back to the balcony and slapped the doubler on. I focused carefully and shot one … two … three frames until I noticed with a sinking feeling that my shutter speed was at a very low 30th-60th of a second. Any camera buff knows that a shutter speed that slow is impossible hand-held with an 800mm focal length. I was leaning out over a balcony and peeking around a corner. I faced the reality that the moment was lost.

I had earlier accomplished my mission of photographing the occupied Tiananmen Square so I gave all my rolls of film to Kurt/Kirk who smuggled it back to the A.P. office in his underwear. The long-haired college kid was wearing a dirty Rambo T-shirt, shorts and sandals. Security would never suspect him of being a journalist.

Five hours later, without any film and exhausted, I called the A.P. bureau in Beijing. The photo editor, Mark Avery, asked, “Jeff, what shutter speed were you shooting?” My heart sank. Mark said: “It was O.K. We used it, but it wasn’t very sharp.”

The next day I arrived at the office, where Liu Heung Shing jokingly said that I had “very bad messages from New York.”

On the clipboard were message after message of congratulations from all over the world: “Congratulations. Widener’s tank man fronting all UK newspapers half page.” “Tank man fronting all European papers.” “Wish I was there, Horst Faas, London.” “French newspaper Liberation wants exclusive interview with Jeff Widener.” “Tank man fronting USA Today and International Herald Tribune.” “Please contact Life magazine for tank man image.”

The purely symbolic act was captured on camera and on video as the Beijing Hotel was where the press corps was housed. The video clips aired on BBC and CNN and three photos (by Widener, by Charlie Cole working for Newsweek, and by Stuart Franklin working for Magnum and Time) made sure of that. There were a fourth and a fifth photographers on the scene too. Arthur Tsang Hin Wah of Reuters and Terril Jones, an AP reporter who accidentally captured the scene unknowingly from the ground level.


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979 thoughts on “The Tank Man by Jeff Widener, 1989

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