The man in front of the tank: How journalists smuggled out the iconic Tiananmen Square photo

June 4, 2024 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography

 Tiananmen Square: How journalists smuggled out the iconic ‘Tank Man’ photo | CNN


June 4, 2024

"The journey of the photograph, too, captured the tension and fear of the time – involving smuggling equipment and film past authorities and across borders. By that point, the Chinese government was trying desperately to control the message going out to the world – and was trying to stop all American news outlets, including CNN, from broadcasting live from Beijing.

It was Monday, June 5, 1989, and Beijing was reeling from the crackdown the day before. Liu Heung-shing, the photo editor for the AP in Beijing, asked Jeff Widener to help get photos of Chinese troops from the Beijing Hotel – which had the best vantage point of the square, now under military control.

Widener had flown in from the news agency’s Bangkok office a week before to help with coverage, and was hurt when the crackdown began, he told CNN previously – after having been hit in the head by a rock, and laid low with the flu.

He set off, with his camera equipment hidden in his jacket – a long 400-millimeter lens in one pocket, a doubler in another, film in his underwear and the camera body in his back pocket.

“I’m biking towards the Beijing Hotel and there’s just debris and charred buses on the ground,” he said. “All of a sudden, there’s four tanks coming, manned by soldiers with heavy machine guns. I’m on my bicycle thinking I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

“I hear rumors that other journalists had had their film and cameras confiscated. I had to figure out a way to get into the hotel,” he added. “I look inside the darkened lobby, and there’s this Western college kid. I walked up to him and whispered, ‘I’m from Associated Press, can you let me up to your room?’ He picked up on it right away and said, ‘Sure.’”

From there, Widener began photographing the tanks rolling by on the roads below – sometimes hearing the ring of a bell that signified a cart passing by with a body, or an injured person being taken to the hospital, he said.

Widener was at the window, preparing to photograph the column of tanks coming down the road, when “this guy with shopping bags walks out in front and starts waving the bags,” he said. “I’m just waiting for him to get shot, holding the focus on him, waiting and waiting.”

The tank stopped and tried to go around the man. The man moved with the tank, blocking its path once again. At one point during the standoff, the man climbed aboard the lead tank and appeared to speak to whoever was inside.

But Widener had a problem – the scene was too far away for his 400-mm lens. His doubler, which would allow him to zoom in twice as much, lay on the bed, leaving him a choice: Should he go grab the doubler, and risk losing the shot in those precious seconds?

He took the chance, got the doubler on the camera, took “one, two, three shots. Then it was over,” he said. “Some people came, grabbed this guy, and ran off. I remember sitting down on this little sofa next to the window and the student (Martsen) said, ‘Did you get it? Did you get it?’ Something in the back of my mind said maybe I got it, but I’m not sure.”

Liu remembers getting the call from Widener, and immediately firing off instructions: roll up the film, go down to the lobby, and ask one of the many foreign students there to bring it to the AP office.

The pictures were soon transmitted over telephone lines to the rest of the world.

Widener did, sending the student bicycling away with the film hidden in his underwear. Forty-five minutes later, “an American guy with a ponytail and a backpack showed up with an AP envelope,” said Liu. They quickly developed the film, “and I looked at that frame – and that’s the frame. It went out.”

Full feature here.

“I suppose for a lot of people it’s something personal, because this guy represents everything in our lives that we’re battling, because we’re all battling something,” Widener said. “He’s really become a symbol for a lot of people.”

Tags: anniversary history photojournalism protest tank man Tiananmen Square