Tiananmen Square by Patrick Zachmann, 1989

In late June 1989, appeared in Sette — long after they had appeared in newsreels and the photos of Charlie Cole, Stuart Franklin, Jeff Widener — the photos of Tiananmen Square protests, taken by another photographer, the future Magnum member Patrick Zachmann. Ironically, Zachmann was one of the very first foreign photographers to be in Beijing, having arrived there coincidentally just before the protests began.

By 1989, Zachmann was an experienced China-watcher. He first traveled there in 1982 to cover the Chinese film industry and later covered the triads in Hong Kong. The previous year, he chronicled Kowloon’s walled city. He arrived in Beijing on the 13th of May, 1989 to cover the youth of the city. He recalled:

I had come to China to shoot portraits of young people in Beijing. I hadn’t planned to document the protests, really, but on my way from the airport to my hotel, which was right next to Tiananmen, I saw a small number of people gathering in the square. I walked to the square and realised that the students were on a hunger strike.

I spent the next ten days in the square. When I think back on it, I was just lucky to be there at the right time – I had no idea the demonstrations would start up again. At first, I was one of the only western photographers there. But two days after my arrival, the atmosphere changed: Gorbachev arrived in Beijing for an official visit, bringing with him press from around the world…..

The atmosphere on the square was an unusual mix of joy and tension, constantly flitting between the two. It was beautiful to see young people inventing new ways of resisting right before our eyes. Some people hosted small workshops at the corners of the square, while others started unions and made placards. The students quickly learned how to organise themselves – demonstrators who came to join the protests quickly found themselves in positions of authority, giving speeches to thousands of people.

With all this positive action going on, protesters were still in a constant state of worry. Rumours about tanks circling the city were always swirling around, especially at night. In the course of my ten days and nights on the square, this tension gradually ate away at the joy, eventually giving way to paranoia, which turned out to be justified in light of the terrible repression that followed.

I left the square on the 23rd of May, three days after martial law was declared, and ten days before the repression started.

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During his ten days there, he watched as the crowd swell from hundreds to hundreds of thousands. The students broke the strict taboo against boyfriends and girlfriends spending the night together, and breaking any taboo — the ban on speaking to foreigners — peppered him with questions about a world unknown to them. What was music like out there? Was he here under the boss’s orders? How did a free press function?

They also confided in Zachmann that they didn’t want to get rid of the Communist Party or the Communist model, but wanted to reform the regime, a view Zachmann countered was naive. When a unit of People’s Revolutionary Army soldiers arrived from the countryside, Zachmann watched as a protester try to cut through official propaganda and explain what the students stood for, and why the troops should join them. He failed, but the massacre was still weeks away.


Sette was a supplement of Corriere della Sera, Italy’s bestselling newspaper, launched as a visual magazine for photo essays. Its editor Paolo Pietroni (founder of the innovative Max and Specchio magazines) and photo editor Giovanna Calvenzi used double-page spreads and short texts to prominently display the work of the contributing photographers.

Sette‘s story opened with, il pianto di una ragazza, simbolo della Cina che ha lottato disperatamente (the tears of a girl, a symbol of the China that fought desperately) but in fact she was a drama student performing her interpretation of “the pain of the Chinese people.”

On the following page, Fu Chan, a history professor at the University of Beijing, speaks to the crowd that applauds and decries: “We refuse to extinguish the candle.” This photo was followed by a student distributing leaflets demanding the resignation of Chairman Deng Xiaoping to a tired crowd, exhausted from hunger strikes, which was still hoping then to obtain a public dialogue with the top leaders.

Wrapped in sheets, they waited day and night (the next spread) while Western tourists walked around the square, unwitting witnesses to an important historical moment (the final spread)

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