Interview: Tiananmen Square Tank Man - The Photographer's Story

Jeff Widener Photography

Beijing, China, 1989

On the morning of 4th June, 1989, Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener found himself in the heat of the pro-democracy uprisings in central Beijing, China. As protestors gathered in Tiananmen Square for the seventh week running, the Chinese authorities resolved to clear them out. It was an unstable and violent environment, hostile to foreign journalists. The goverment was not only intent on supressing dissent, but also on removing any trace of it - so this was a risky place to be moving around with a camera.

The image that Jeff Widener shot that day, as he watched a solitary figure station himself in the path of a column of tanks, was rapidly distributed throughout the world's press. Though banned in China, it was nominated for a 1990 Pullitzer Prize and has become one of the world's most recognisable photographs.

I was delighted to have the chance to ask Jeff some questions recently. After a career working for various news organisations, including 8 years as AP's Photo Editor in Southeast Asia, he has now taken a step back from reporting to concentrate on his own photographic projects. This interview offers a look back at earlier work, as well as at the compelling images in his recent portfolio.

Jeff Widener Photography

Da Nang Train, Vietnam, 1992

Jeff Widener Photography

Child beggar and brother, Mandalay, 1995

Jeff Widener Photography

Cats, Kalaupapa, Hawaii, 2006

<empty>Jeff Widener Photography

Prague Spring, 2012

PAC: When did you first recognise that photojournalism was the career for you?   

JW: In 1974 I had won the 1974 Kodak/Scholastic National Photography Scholarship beating out 8000 students from across the United States. It was a whirlwind African studies program that took me to England, France, Italy, Kenya and Tanzania.

One afternoon in Mombasa while sitting on a beach swing between two palm trees, I gazed out at the Indian Ocean as the trade winds gently cast ripples over the turquoise water. It was not hard for a 17 year-old to take notice. Photojournalism would be my calling.   

PAC: Have you found that your motivations as a photographer have shifted at various stages of your career?   

JW: My first motive was to get someone to pay for my cameras and film. I struggled at age 15 working illegal night shifts at Jack in the Box flipping burgers and paying for broken plates as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant. Newspapers certainly seemed a better option. In later years when paychecks started rolling in my direction focused on finding great stories for the publications I worked on.   

PAC: You’re the photographer behind the image of the lone protestor stopping a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, China, 1989 - one of the most iconic pictures ever taken. The influence of the picture has been enormous, but what has been its influence of your life and career - both positive and, perhaps, frustrating?   

JW: Well my dating situation improved. Many doors opened with people that probably would not have given me the time of day. The problem with an iconic image though is it’s easy to become ‘Giligan’ or cast type. Though many know my ‘Tank Man’ image they know little of what else I have done. This is something I hope to change.   

PAC: Can you briefly describe the events surrounding that image, how you found yourself in a position to shoot it and what your feelings were at the time? 

Jeff Widener Photography

Woman and security police, Tiananmen Square, China, 1989

JW: In the Spring of 1989 I had been monitoring the situation from Bangkok where I was the Associated Press Southeast Asia Photo Editor. Though it was north of my region, I knew the AP headquarters would call me in on the story.

I arrived in Beijing at the height of the mass protests with a serious case of the flu. I documented the hunger strikers and the building of the ‘Goddess Of Democracy’ just across the street from the famous Mao portrait. Things started getting heated up on May 3rd and in the evening hours found myself facing a massive crowd of brick-throwing protestors.

A burning armored car came limping down the Chang Ahn Boulevard. One man caught on fire and was rolling around on the ground as bystanders tried to help him. By this time I could only make one flash image every 60 seconds. It was almost comical to think that there I was standing in the middle of chaos with the world exploding around me, on one of the biggest news stories of the 20th century, and all I could do was wait for what seemed an eternity for an orange ready light to blink.

For a photojournalist, this was a cruel joke from above. But in reality it was a blessing. The split second I raised the camera to my eye, a terrific blow snapped my neck back leaving blood all over my destroyed camera. A stray rock had hit me squarely in the face and the Nikon F3 Titanium camera had absorbed the blow sparing my life. A second later a Chinese soldier jumped out of the back of the blazing APC to surrender but the crowd moved in on him with knives, hatchets, steel pipes and rocks.  There was nothing I could do but pick up a stray bicycle and peddle back to the AP office.

The massive concussion I received made the world spin like in a slow motion movie. Red tracers from large caliber machine gun fire arched over the Great hall of The People. Buses were burning; the crackle of gunfire was heard throughout the city. People were screaming and even laughing. It was just insane and I was scared to death. When I managed to return to the AP office at the Diplomatic Compound, Photo editor Mark Avery said ‘Don’t go back out they are killing people’. 

Mark had tears in his eyes as he filed pictures. A close Chinese friend had been killed by the military. Mark had to pry my camera open in the darkroom with a pair of pliers. The rock had ripped the top of the photomic head off along with the Vivitar 283 flash, shattered the mirror and bent the titanium shutter. Had it been a lesser camera, I would not be doing this interview. I made one of the most difficult decisions of my career and did not return to the battle scene. I was just too exhausted and scared. I anguished over the decision and felt like a coward. I was humiliated but survived.

A day later was asked by AP to photograph the occupied Tiananmen Square. I managed to smuggle my camera and film past Chinese security at the Beijing Hotel. A college kid named Kirk Martson had helped me to his room and ultimately found me a lone roll of Fuji 100 ASA film which I would make my famous 'Tank Man' photo with. He later risked his life bringing the film to the AP office while I waited for my supplies. The next day there were telegrams of congratulations from all over the world. Life Magazine even ran the picture two pages.  

Jeff Widener Photography

Beijing, China, 1989

PAC: It must be gratifying to reflect on the fact that your picture gave a voice to the protestor, whose actions would otherwise have been erased from memory, as has been attempted by the banning of the image in China (especially since lack of press freedom in China was one of the key objects of the protest).

JW: Nobody knows who Tank Man is.  He is now like the ‘Unknown Soldier’. All one has to do is look at Hong Kong every anniversary to see whether he is forgotten. China has tried to brainwash its people to forget his heroic deed but it's just ridiculous that the communist leaders have denied coming clean with the fate of so many people who have disappeared and been imprisoned. All the Beijing government accomplished was creating a martyr.   

PAC: Have there been any other moments in your career where you've been aware of the direct and significant impact, on perceptions or actions, your work has had?   

JW: One photo story I did on a children’s hospital in Bangladesh following a cyclone raised $25,000 from a concerned reader on the Detroit Free Press.  Another story I did on the homeless living in tents along the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii impacted the outcome when the Governor took notice and built a large shelter. The next year, all the beaches were cleared. It's times like that when a paycheck seems secondary.   

PAC: Photojournalists are often asked whether they have directly intervened when shooting distressing scenes. I recently watched a documentary on Robert Capa, in which a contemporary described Capa’s attitude that his camera was his rifle in the fight against Fascism. Is witnessing and sharing events enough of an intervention, or have you ever felt the need to step in under certain situations?   

JW: In general I try to stay an observant unbiased bystander but like Capa, I have my own thought on things as well. Would I attempt to rescue a screaming kid from a burning school? Sure.  During the diplomatic compound shootings following the Tiananmen military crackdown, I found myself trapped in a vendor alley as troops opened fire. I was scared but still managed to help an old woman move out of danger.   

Jeff Widener Photography

Soldiers and tank, Kabul, Afghanistan, 1990

Jeff Widener Photography

Child with AIDS, Bangkok, Thailand, 2005

Jeff Widener Photography

Ghanain soldier, Phnom Penh Cambodia, 1993

Jeff Widener Photography

Jack Lemmon, California, 1978

Jeff Widener Photography

King Manor Apartments, Hawaii, 2004

PAC: Your current work is an interesting change of direction in your career. Can you tell us a bit about the kinds of images you are producing at the moment and the equipment you’re using?   

JW: After years of using digital cameras I decided in 2003 to return to my newspaper beginnings with Leica rangefinder cameras and Tri-X film. For me, making black and white pictures with digital is like buying a Porsche with a Volkswagen engine. There is just something more real with analog as many audiophiles know with vinyl records.

I typically carry two Leica M7 rangefinders with a 28mm F2.0 Summicron and 1a 951 blue coated 50mm collapsible Summitar which has a wonderful spatial depth at F4.5. Occasionally I use a Leica R8 with a 135mm or 180mm. On rare occasions I use a Leica 350mm.   

PAC: Your recent work brings to mind some of my favorite black and white street/documentary photography of the 20th century. The pictures are very thoughtfully composed and often feature pleasant, light-hearted or funny subject matter. After a fast-paced career of intense shoots in often harrowing environments, are you pleased for the opportunity to slow down, take shots that make people smile and work completely on your own terms?   

Jeff Widener Photography

Dog walkers, Central Park, New York, 2009

JW: Well I miss some of the action of big news stories but I also love the subtle beauty of everyday life which I now have the freedom to pursue. 

PAC: There are some really amusing images in your recent portfolio (e.g. a monkey making use of the gents’ facilities!). Is your sense of humour an important part of your work?

Jeff Widener Photography

Monkey, Gibraltar, 2012

JW: I think we as humans often take ourselves too serious and my acidic humor sometimes brings this out in my pictures. Some people go crazy over the littlest things while others participate in strange rituals oblivious to their surroundings. I love to document humanity in all its glorious madness.  

Jeff Widener Photography

Couple kissing, 2012

PAC: Often humor and Surrealism go hand-in-hand when it comes to photography. Are you interested in the way photography can sometimes highlight the strangeness and unexpectedness of the visual world?   

JW: That's what I live for.  

Jeff Widener Photography

Parrot, Honolulu, 2006

PAC: Most people shoot digital color photography these days. What's drawn you back to black and white film photography?   

JW: One great photographer once said that ‘color is vulgar’ Though I am not sure I completely agree, I can see how color can distract from getting the message across at times. But then sometimes color is the only option. I am just in a black and white film frame of mind these days.   

PAC: You still take pictures all over the world. Do you think travel and fresh visual experiences are important for photographers?

JW: In 1987 I had just returned to Colombo from Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka after photographing the fighting between Indian Peace Keepers and the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. The Associated Press office was a simple walk up brick structure in a back alley where all kinds of strange characters would congregate.

The office was run by a wonderful bureau chief and human being named Patrick Cruez and his reporter son Dexter. After an hour of tea and listening to Patrick’s delicious English humor, I stepped out on the back balcony near the telex machine. A light rain fell which soothed my soul following days of war-torn Jaffna. Suddenly a large shaft of November light penetrated the clouds creating millions of sparkling rain jewels on the British colonial rooftops. A flock of crows fluttered across distant red sky. How do you forget a moment like that?   

PAC: Many people love street photography but are a little concerned about how subjects might react. Have you noticed differences in people’s attitudes towards being photographed across the world, and also between now and the start of your career?   

JW: There is no doubt that the internet has made a street photographer's life a living hell. Everyone now seems totally paranoid that they are going to end up in a porn film. This reluctance is extremely strong here in Germany and in parts of Europe where some laws require photographers to obtain permission in writing before clicking the shutter.

This is just ridiculous and future generations will look back at present day and ask where the children are and why does everyone look frightened or away from the camera? My advice is to train your ability to know what your subject does before they even know it themselves. If caught, just be honest and explain that you are a street photographer and this is their 15 minutes of fame.

If you approach someone and they decline to be photographed, put down the camera and talk to them. Find out what they are all about. Who are they? What’s important to them? Tell them who you are. Shake off their fear and gain their trust. Many times the person will say ‘Well I guess it is ok to take my picture’. People are used to saying ‘No’, but, subliminally, everyone wants to feel important. Honesty will open many doors if you have patience.   

Jeff Widener Photography

Construction worker, Scotland, 2011

PAC: Are there any photographers, contemporary or historical, who have really inspired you and influenced your work?   

JW: American photographer Brian Lanker who sadly just recently passed away was a huge influence of my earliest work. He became my mentor and close friend. I recall first seeing his work as a student in Reseda High School in Southern California. His daily images of Mid-West Kansas  created such a personal connection we me that I called him up the next day and shared my thoughts.

He invited me to come see him in Oregon where he was the photo editor of the Eugene Register Guard. That spring of 1974, two classmates and I drove to see him and Brian graciously took us to a Mexican restaurant and offered a tour of the newspaper.

Czech photographer Josef Koudelka has also impacted my work greatly, and in fact I just received a post card from him last year. One day soon I hope to meet him. I was thrilled to meet Elliott Erwitt at his New York studio a few years ago. His work has also affected my approach to photography.

Michael Williamson and Carol Guzy at the Washington Post are remarkable newspaper photographers. I think Carol has four Pulitzer Prizes making my nomination pale in comparison. Jerry Gay, Dave LaBelle, John Kaplan, John Meztger, Tom Kasser are most likely unfamiliar to the average street photographer, but all are amazing individuals at what they have accomplished.   

PAC: You’re currently producing a lot of high quality prints of your work. How important is the whole process of creating a print to the finished product of a photograph and the impact that it has on viewers?

JW: Well perfection and diplomacy are pretty tough bedfellows. If I am working with a professional then it’s not necessary to micromanage everything but all too often others may not share the same commitment. We all want to be appreciated but as to what impact my work has on future generations only time will tell.

Jeff Widener Photography

Snowy park, Stockholm, 2012

Jeff Widener Photography

Wet step, 2011

Jeff Widener Photography

Drag, 2011

Jeff Widener Photography

Mother and child, Hawaii, 2008

Jeff Widener Photography

Bodie, California, 2011

Jeff Widener Photography


Jeff Widener Photography

Traffic, Yellowstone Park, 2011

Jeff Widener Photography

Halloween, Hawaii, 2011

You can view more of Jeff Widener's images at his personal website here:

For information on Jeff, his work and purchasing prints: See these links

What do you think about Jeff's work? Favourite images? Which images strike you and why? How does the recent work compare to the earlier reporting?

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