June 5th is upon us again.
In 1989, the Communist government in Beijing marred the date with a brutal and bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters gathered on Tiananmen Square.
Last year, I marked the occasion by an interview with Charlie Cole, the photographer who took one of the iconic Tank Man photos. The year before, I remarked upon the Zeligian appearance of a former Chinese prime minister in one of the photos taken on the square. In 2009, I covered various versions of the Tank Man photos. In between, we saw the defacing of the Mao portrait during the protests and a defiant Ai Wei Wei. A profound irony is they cannot access WordPress from China, so I remain, as always, preaching to the choir.
In Franklin’s contact sheets, the iconic frame is third row down, second from left. The light pole in the bottom of the frame gives some context to Widener’s position from the Beijing Hotel.
I woke up in the Beijing Hotel to find Changan Avenue occupied by a line of students facing a line of soldiers and a column of tanks. I was hunched down on a balcony on the fifth floor (I think). Three others were also on the balcony: Charlie Cole, a reporter for Actuel in France and one from Vanity Fair. I tried to photograph the whole series of events, but like any photographer working in film, I was always fearful of running out on frame 36!
At some point, shots were fired and the tanks carried on down the road toward us, leaving Tiananmen Square behind, until blocked by a lone protester. I photographed the protester. He carried two shopping bags and remonstrated with the driver of the tank in an act of defiance. He then disappeared into the crowd after being led away from the tank by two bystanders.
The remainder of the day was spent trying to gain access to hospitals to determine how many had died or were wounded. In the two hospitals I could get access to, I found young Chinese — probably students — being treated on the floor of hospital corridors. It was mysterious that there were no dead. I understood later that the majority of the fatalities were taken to children’s hospitals in the city to avoid media attention. Chinese officials worked very hard obscure evidence of the massacre.
His photos nearly risked confiscation by the Chinese police but Franklin had left moments earlier to cover events at the Beijing University before the police came knocking on the journalists’ hotel. Afterwards his negatives were smuggled out in a packet of tea by a French student who later delivered it to Magnum’s Paris offices. Franklin’s photos appeared in Time.