China sought to bury news of the protests. Jeff Widener’s images conveyed the bloody reality
May 31, 2019 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography
A lone man stops a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989, Beijing, China
Via The Washington Post
"It has been nearly 30 years since I witnessed the horrific events of June 4, 1989, when Chinese soldiers fired upon pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square. Though many memories of the protests stir in my brain, it is the laughter that haunts me to this day.
On the evening of June 3, 1989, I stood with two other Associated Press photographers, Mark Avery and Liu Heung Shing, in a small dark office cluttered with humming picture transmitters and strewn camera gear. Low on staff, we had to draw straws to decide who would work the first night shift. I was the lucky victim.
The plan was to monitor the ongoing protests at Tiananmen Square in case anything unusual happened. Soon after, AP reporter Dan Biers and I pedaled our bicycles onto Chang’an Avenue. Though things were initially tranquil on the streets of Beijing, the stillness was short-lived. Small groups of men and women moved silently in the night, carrying large sections of steel road dividers to block the advance of any military threat.
I was traveling light, with my camera gear concealed in my clothing to avoid raising suspicion. From the shadows near the Great Hall of the People emerged an elderly Chinese man with a long white beard and an enthusiastic grin that flaunted two remaining front teeth. He proudly opened his heavy, dark coat and showcased a large silver hatchet that glimmered under the street lamps. Streams of blood trickled down the blade, forming droplets on the ground. In shock, I forced a fake smile and quickly moved on.
Just after midnight, an armored personnel carrier with a frontal machine gun cornered the avenue so fast that yellow sparks flew off the tread. As we ran for cover, I lost a camera lens.
Low on battery power, I was able to take only one flash picture every minute. This was a cruel joke for a photojournalist, and I was contemplating whether to return to the office and resupply when, in the distance, another personnel carrier lurched down the road completely engulfed in flames. Demonstrators were in hot pursuit of the vehicle, shoving large pipes into the treads. I had a single wide angle lens, which meant I had to risk getting dangerously close to the action and a possible exploding vehicle if I wanted to capture the images.
An angry protester stood over a dead soldier while holding a weapon in his hand. Then I spotted another man rolling around on the ground in flames. As a bystander tried to help the victim, all I could do was stare down at the small orange light on the flash that was attached to my camera, waiting for the signal that it was ready.
After what seemed to be an eternity, I finally lifted the viewfinder to my eye. Then, a terrific blow snapped my neck back. Laughter eerily rang out from the opposite side of the street as I struggled to stay conscious. I looked down in a daze at my shattered camera, which was covered in blood. The flash, lens and top plate had been ripped clean off by a piece of cement that was thrown at me.
Dazed and without a working camera, I grabbed a random bicycle from the ground and started heading back to the office.
The scene was chaotic. Buses were burning, and people were screaming while large-caliber machine gun tracers arched over the square. When I finally reached the office, Avery told me not to return to the streets because Chinese soldiers were “killing people.” In the darkroom, Mark salvaged the images I took by extracting the film from the smashed camera with a pair of pliers. Miraculously, the film chamber had remained light-tight.
In the days that followed, my pictures were transmitted around the world, appearing in Newsweek magazine and on the front pages of many other publications. As China sought to bury news about the protests and their violent end, my images conveyed to a global audience the bloody reality. And though my camera was destroyed, its reinforced titanium had absorbed the blow, sparing my life.
Though I still reflect on the protests, and particularly the day I photographed the iconic “Tank Man” image, it is the laughter right after the blow that I recall most.
Jeff Widener is a photojournalist, best known for his image of “Tank Man.”
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