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Eyewitness at Tiananmen Square, 1989

Interview with Jeff Widener, "Tank Man" Photographer


The iconic

Tank Man - one man vs. the tanks, Tiananmen Square, 1989.

Jeff Widener / Associated Press. Used with permission.

Mention the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, and the first image that springs to mind is "Tank Man" or "The Unknown Rebel" - the iconic photo of a lone young man standing in the path of a column of People's Liberation Army tanks.

The best-known photo of that moment was taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, at great personal risk. His image, and his memories of this pivotal moment for China, are an important piece of modern Chinese history. Here are Mr. Widener's answers to some questions about that period in Beijing.

Q & A with Jeff Widener

Why were you in Beijing in June of 1989? Were you on assignment for AP?

At the time of the Tiananmen uprising, I was the Southeast Asia Picture Editor with Associated Press in Bangkok and was asked by AP headquarters in New York to help with photo coverage. The Chinese government denied me a journalist visa so I entered the country as a tourist.

Where were you standing when you took the "Tank Man" photo?

It was the 5th floor of the Beijing Hotel. I managed to smuggle my camera gear past Chinese security with the help of an American student named Kirk who happened to be staying at the hotel. He later smuggled the pictures back to the AP office in his underwear where the images were developed and transmitted to the world.

What was the atmosphere like in Beijing that day? Were you ever afraid for your own safety?

During a confrontation on the night of June 4th, 1989 I was attacked by a mob as they tried to confiscate my cameras. That scared me. I then raised my passport in the air and screamed "American" a leader of the group calmed everyone and he examined my document. I was then allowed to continue shooting pictures. A dead soldier was lying next to a burning armored car. The driver was still inside. As I raised the camera to my eye, a stray brick from a protester hit me in the face at the same instant ripping off the top of the Nikon titanium body as well as the lens and flash. I suffered a massive concussion but the camera absorbed the blow and thus saved my life. I managed to make it back to the AP office where the film had to be pried from the camera with pliers.

When you took the picture, did you have any idea that it would become one of history's great shots? Was it, "Yes, I got it," or did that realization come later?

When I saw the column of tanks come down the Chang'an Blvd. I told the student Kirk that the lone man was going to screw up my composition. I was not thinking clearly with the concussion and I also was suffering from a severe case of the flu. Only a few days later when some of the other international news photographers congratulated me did the full importance of the image sink in. After all, after witnessing everything that I had seen over the previous few days, nothing really seemed far fetched.

Have you ever regretted taking the picture? Do you ever get tired of talking about it, or feel like the Rolling Stones having to sing "Satisfaction" over and over for decades?

At age 12, I recall looking at one of the Time Life books on iconic images. I recall lying on my bed with my cat and flipping through the pages. There was Eddie Adams Vietnam shot in Saigon, Nick Ut's napalm girl and the shot of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon. The Hindenburg crash, the Kent State shootings etc. At the time, I was sneaking my father's Topcon Auto 100 camera to school every day and getting very interested in photography. As I looked at the book's images, I got the strangest feeling of excitement. I don't know why but years later, while looking on AOL, there was a section listing the top 10 photographs of all time. As I looked at the pictures, there were the old familiar black and white iconic images I recalled as a child but this time with a color shot. It was my image of the lone man stopping the column of tanks in Tiananmen. It was a very surreal experience seeing that. I do not regret making the image. Many students are seeing the picture for the first time and I find myself doing more and more speaking engagements at universities about the China events of 1989.

Have you been back to China since 1989? If so, what has changed?

I made several trips back to Beijing after between 1989 and 1995.

The parents of children killed in school collapses in Sichuan Province are being "reined in" by the Chinese authorities now. What do you think will happen in coming weeks? Do you foresee another Tiananmen-like incident?

I believe that as long as the Chinese government continues to use an iron fist with its citizens there will always be civil unrest. The same can be said for Burma.

Generally, what direction do you think Chinese politics will take in the next five or ten years?

More of the same repression with some slight loosening of the reins with regard to basic freedoms.

Jeff Widener is an award winning photo-journalist who has worked in more than 100 countries around the world. He has captured the beauty and turmoil of East Timor, Syria, India, and the Antarctic, among others.

June 8, 2008 interview via email of Jeff Widener by About.com Asian History Guide Kallie Szczepanski.

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