Behind the Lens: Tankman
In 1989, Jeff Widener, an unassuming despatch photographer from the AP makes his daily commute from the US Embassy in Beijing to Tiananmen Square. At first, his job was simply to document the growth of a nascent pro-democracy movement. However, his role in the agency soon escalated in importance as he was tasked to capture for posterity, the deplorable crackdown that was taking place in the square. And thus, on that fateful day in 1989, he immortalised a simple act of protest in Tiananmen Square by an unknown rebel for the rest of human history - Tank Man.
‘Tank Man’ is perhaps the most important photograph of Jeff Widener’s career and it is definitely the most iconic one of the century-defining Tiananmen Square Protests. In it, a man dressed in ‘Western attire’ and apparently clutching a bag of shopping stands directly in the way of a column of tanks. This act of defiance and probably coincidental depiction of capitalism and consumerism has gained notoriety in part due to how it contrasts with the aforementioned tanks that were a symbol of power and oppression held by the Chinese Communists.
This was not an easy period for a single-party state still reeling from the tumult of the Cultural Revolution and a party grappling with the anxieties of a leadership transition. Add to these pressures an economic transformation program that was causing upheaval throughout the country, and you get a very unnerving set of political realities. As such, with pro-democracy protests gaining momentum, the party flooded the capital with troops tasked with putting down protestors and their democratic aspirations.
This act of protest contains no motivational phrases or calls to action but yet has come to mean so much to so many. However, despite its prominence, the relevance of the photo has been confined to communities based outside of China. If you were to ask anyone on the streets of Beijing about Tank Man, little would be willing to engage in frank conversation about it and many more would have already pushed it to the peripheries of their memory. Self-censorship runs deep in the People’s Republic.
The Chinese have had very terse flirts with democracy throughout its history. The short-lived Republic of China (1912-1949) buckled under the prevailing economic and political issues of its time that were worsened by Warlordism, Japanese expansionism and the encroaching influence of the nascent Communist Party. Democratic movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan have also manifestly failed to displace the power of the Chinese communists.
Little is known about the fate of the Tank Man (also known as the Unknown Rebel). The question of what happened to him has come to haunt historians, and journalists are similarly divided on the topic. It is however reassuring that although the Chinese government has kept mum about him, Jiang Zemin was credited with saying (in an apparent rare deviation from protocol) that Tank Man was ‘never killed’.
Consequently, many stories about 1989 xTank Man still continue to be told, each with their own facts and narrative changes. We may indeed never know what happen to the Tank Man nor of his identity.
Photographs that have been accorded such a level of prominence are often accompanied by exciting but tenuous circumstances - you can read more about the danger that accompanied Widener’s job and how he almost missed the shot. Alternatively, Widener has on his personal website an entire album replete with the images he took of the Tiananmen Square protests and the broader upheaval that took place in China, which can be accessed here in its full glory.
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