The legend of the 'Tank Man' photograph
Jeff Widener was initially irritated by the man entering his shot.
Widener, an Associated Press photographer, was focusing his camera on a line of tanks in Beijing's Tiananmen Square when this man in a white shirt and dark trousers appeared out of nowhere, carrying what appeared to be shopping bags.
Widener feared the man would alter the composition of his frame.
He had no idea he was about to capture one of the most iconic images in history.
Widener stood on the hotel balcony watching as the man confronted the lead tank, directly in front of it. The tank came to a halt and attempted to maneuver around the man. The man moved in lockstep with the tank, once again obstructing its path.
During the standoff, the man climbed onto the lead tank and appeared to communicate with whoever was inside.
“I was about a half mile from the row of tanks, and as a result, I couldn't hear very well,” Widener explained.
Onlookers eventually drew the man away. We have no idea who he is or what happened to him to this day. However, he continues to be a potent symbol of defiance.
By this point, the Chinese government was desperate to maintain control over the message being broadcast to the rest of the world. Several days prior to the crackdown, China attempted to prevent all American news organizations, including CNN, from broadcasting live from Beijing.
“There was always a significant risk of arrest and film confiscation,” Widener explained.
Martsen, the student who assisted Widener in gaining access to the Beijing Hotel, concealed the "Tank Man" film in his underwear and smuggled it out. The images were quickly transmitted to the rest of the world via telephone lines.
Numerous news organizations took photographs of "Tank Man," but Widener's was the most widely used. It was featured on the front pages of newspapers worldwide and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize that year.
“While I was aware that the photograph had garnered widespread praise, it wasn't until years later that I saw an AOL post naming my image one of the top ten most memorable photographs of all time. That was the first time I realized I'd accomplished something truly remarkable," Widener explained.
Protests in Beijing began on April 18, 1989, following the death of former communist leader Hu Yaobang. Hu had worked to shift China's political system toward greater openness, and he had become a symbol of democratic reform. Students on the verge of tears marched to Tiananmen Square to demand a more democratic government.
Thousands of people joined the students in protesting China's communist rulers over the next few weeks.
On May 19, an estimated 1.2 million people attended a rally. A 33-foot-tall statue of the Goddess of Democracy was erected in the square in four days.
Widener recalled, "There was a carnival atmosphere and a palpable lightness in the air." “I believe that the majority of the media were swept up in the whole affair, and I found it remarkable that a statue of democracy stood across Chang'an Boulevard from the giant Mao portrait symbolizing communism.”
On June 4, around 1 a.m., Chinese troops opened fire on demonstrators. There has never been a published official death toll. Numerous estimates range between several hundred and thousands.
Additionally, it is estimated that up to 10,000 people were arrested during and following the protests. Several dozen people were put to death.
Widener stayed in Beijing for a week following the crackdown's start and then fled.
“When I left for the airport, I was sick with the flu, suffering from a head injury, and terrified to death,” he explained.
His photographs — and anything else relating to the massacre — remain banned in China to this day.