It has been 30 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre. The most recognizable image from the crackdown is the Tank Man photo. Today we speak with the American photographer who captured that iconic image. Jeff Widener was an Associated Press photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand, at the time. The morning after the Tiananmen Square massacre, he took a photo of an unknown man blocking a column of tanks. It’s an unforgettable reminder of a day that the Chinese regime still refuses to admit happened.
Pro-Democracy Student Protests
Many factors led to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, but the event that set it off was the death of Hu Yaobang. He was one of the few leaders who sympathized with the pro-democracy activists, and he was seen as incorruptible. After Hu Yaobang’s death, Chinese leaders did not agree to the students’ demands, and crowds grew bigger and bigger. The Associated Press sent photographer Jeff Widener to help cover the story.
My routine was, basically, going to the Tiananmen Square every morning, just before sunrise. And one of the incredible things was watching these student protestors building the Goddess of Democracy, which is basically a symbol of democracy. It’s facing off directly across the street at the giant Mao portrait on the Forbidden City, which of course is a representative of the communist government. And I just thought this contrast was so extraordinary. And at the time, it was hard for me not to get wrapped up in the story with everybody else. — Jeff Widener
Protests Turn to Mob Violence
How did you take the Tank Man photo?
Jeff Widener: Well, it’s a complicated situation because you have to look at some of the events prior to that. I was sick with the flu, very sick the minute I arrived. And the night before I photographed the tank man, I was hit in the face by a chunk of cement near a burning armored car. I was one of the few journalists that was actually out on the street that night. And in fact, I didn’t see any other photographers anywhere. So I was very scared because one of the armored cars came by, and I thought I was going to be shot, and I was running out of film and batteries.
I was attacked by the mob. They pulled on my cameras, and I pulled my American passport out and held it in the air. I screamed, “American, American.” One of the leaders came up to me, grabbed the passport, looked at it, and calmed the crowd down, told them to quiet. And then he pointed at a dead soldier next to the burning armored car. He said, “You photo, you photo so you show world.” And so I took a picture, but later when I got up, I’m looking down at my flash, waiting for it to recycle. And all of a sudden I got hit in the face and my neck snapped back. I looked down, my camera was completely destroyed with blood all over it. — Jeff Widener
A Tale of Two Protests
Who were those mobsters?
Jeff Widener: Well, it’s funny you should ask. When I was at Tiananmen Square, those students were happy. They were young. Everybody was a sort of friendly. I didn’t see really any hostility. I know that they were giving drinks to the soldiers. There was some of the police women who were singing patriotic songs. But these people that night, these look like a mob. They just look like street thugs. And if you look at the photograph just before I got hit you’ll look at these people. They don’t really look like young students. So I don’t really know who they were, but I think they were different from students.
What happened after you were hit in the face?
Jeff Widener: I kind of struggled to get back to the AP office at the diplomatic compound because they were burning buses, I had to lift the bicycle over the steel barricades. People were throwing rocks, so I was ducking rocks. I was worried about exploding vehicles. I was worried about the gunfire that I was hearing. After a while I got back to the AP office, and Mark Avery was transmitting a photograph of a protestor who had been run over by something, either a tank or an armored car. He was dead with a bicycle. He told me they’re killing people, don’t go back out. And I had to make it very difficult decision because I was so scared. And as a photographer and a journalist, I wanted to photograph this story. It was an incredible story. But I was so scared and so sick from the flu, I decided not to go.
I think in every protest, even in France where they have the yellow jackets, you’re going to find groups of people that are peaceful, and you’re going to find people who get involved that are just crazy. So it could have been that these people could have just been out for a fight. You know, they might’ve just been looking for a fight with the government. I really don’t know. But the thing about it is why would this leader want me to show the world a dead soldier? It doesn’t make the students look good, you know. I mean, that’s not going to make them look good if they show that they killed a soldier. So that’s confusing to me. — Jeff Widener
Capturing the Iconic Tank Man Photo
Jeff Widener: The next day I get up and I work the courage up to go down to the AP office. In the street there’s all kinds of smashed bicycles, there’s rocks. I walk into the office, and there’s a message from AP in New York, saying we would like if somebody could please photograph the occupied Tiananmen Square. Mark Avery, the editor, said, I can’t go because I’m an editor. Liu Heung Shing says I’m Chinese, I can’t go. They’ll kill me. So again, I’m the guy. I’m the lucky guy who’s got to go to get this picture.
Now, I know from journalists that I had talked to that there were secret police in white uniforms. And apparently they were using electric probes to shock the journalists if they didn’t give up their notebooks and their film and cameras. So I knew that I was facing that, and I didn’t know how I was going to get into the hotel because they were going to search me, and I was going to get arrested. — Jeff Widener
Sneaking into the Hotel
Jeff Widener: I saw the security in the white uniforms. I walked through the lobby, they started to come up to me, and I had to think very quickly. There was an American exchange student who was in the shadows. I went and I pretended I knew him, and I said, “Hi Joe, where you been? I’ve been looking for you.” And then I whispered, “I’m from Associated Press. Can I come up to your room?” And he goes, yeah, come on. Just follow me. Follow me. So I looked behind me and I could see the security turned around and left because they thought I was in a room with him. They thought I was a guest.
Jeff Widener: In the elevator, this exchange student told me, you’re lucky you got here when you did, because 10 minutes ago a truckload of soldiers shot some guests who were standing outside the lobby. They shot them and they pulled their bodies back in. He said that he had hid behind a taxi … I told this student that I had to get onto the roof to get a picture because they wanted a picture of the occupied Tiananmen Square. So we came up with a plan.
The Miraculous Photo
Jeff Widener: Well, I heard the tanks coming down the street. I went to the balcony and I leaned over and I see, I think this is a great shot. You know, all these tanks coming down. It’s a nice long compression shot with a 400 millimeter. But then a man walks out with two shopping bags and I’m thinking, Oh man, this guy’s going to mess up my photograph. And I wasn’t thinking clearly. See, I wasn’t thinking that this is a better picture because I’m just thinking he’s going to mess up my composition.
And I take three pictures, one, two, three. And then I notice that the light meter and the camera is showing 30th of a second. That’s an impossible picture. 30th of a second with an 800 millimeter is not possible. It’s an impossibility. The police came out to the tank man and they grabbed him, pushed him, and took him away. So I didn’t know what happened to the camera. I came back in, I sat down, and the students said did you get the photo? Did you get the photo? And I said, I don’t think so. I don’t think I have it. But it’s strange because in my mind I just had a feeling maybe one came out. I don’t know why, but I just had a feeling. — Jeff Widener
Why do you think it is extraordinary? Why do you think it is impactful?
Jeff Widener: Maybe the first thing I think is extraordinary is that I survived. The next thing is extraordinary is that I didn’t screw up the photograph. What’s extraordinary is the picture came out at 30th of a second. To me it’s like a miracle.
So basically the shutter speed was much, much slower than it should be, but it still got the picture, right?
Jeff Widener: Yes. And this shocks me probably the most. I’m not religious, but if there was an angel somewhere, he definitely steadied that lens for me.
China Going Forward
Today, many Chinese people, especially people in China, they feel that June 4th was not a government crackdown. It is not a suppression. Rather the students were taking advantage and they attacked the military. That’s why the government had to respond.
Jeff Widener: It was a recipe for disaster. So there were mistakes on both sides. There were mistakes by the students and there were mistakes by the government. And it’s a tragedy. It’s unfortunate. And what I think needs to be done now is that I think the Chinese government has to basically admit to what happened. America has made mistakes through its history and reconcile these events. Other countries have made mistakes. Germany has made mistakes and they’ve all reconciled. They have not tried to pretend it never happened. They have not tried to fool people.
And I think it is ridiculous for the Chinese government to continue trying to cover this up, especially with technology, the Internet. Sure it’s embarrassing, but be a man. Own up to it and admit it and move forward. And if there’s going to be a real change in China, it is up to the Chinese people to come up with some kind of a peaceful dialogue. — Jeff Widener
You can find more of Mr. Widener’s photography on Instagram at jeff.widener.
Press play to listen to the whole interview. How do you think China is compared to 30 years ago when the crackdown happened? Please leave your comments below.