The Story Behind the Tank Man Photo at Tiananmen Square

It’s likely that you’ve seen Jeff Widener‘s most iconic image. Featuring a single man staring down a street filled with armed military tanks, it’s been praised by people around the world as a symbol of strength and defiance in the face of oppression. Though the themes within the photograph resonate universally, few people consider just how the image itself came to be. In this brief documentary, the photographer behind the shot shared just what he had to go through to get the image of a lifetime:

When it comes to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, many of the details surrounding the event are a bit hazy. Some reports claim that several hundred demonstrators were killed at the hands of armed forces when government officials declared a state of martial law. Other sources claim that the casualties numbered in the thousands. One of the most heavily censored political movements in the history of the People’s Republic of China, the full repercussions of the ’89 Democracy Movement may never be privy to the public

Widener was one of very few foreigners to witness the events that took place at Tiananmen Square firsthand. A journalist on assignment with the Associated Press, he was left apprehensive and less than enthusiastic by the dangerous environment. With rumors circulating of militants using electric cattle prods in order to silence and confiscate the material of reporters, Widener quickly discovered that he had to conceal his true identity if he hoped to cover the situation.

Retreating to the Beijing Hotel as the protests became increasingly hectic, he had little faith in his ability to capture anything captivating and illustrative of the situation. By a stroke of luck, the weary photographer met a western college student by the name of Kirk Martsen in the lobby of the building. Sympathetic to the cause of the protesters, Martsen agreed to allow Widener to take photographs from the relative security of his hotel room balcony.

Capturing the chaos of the demonstrations, Widener quickly found that he had used up all of the film he had on hand. Desperate to push forward, but hesitant to reveal his intentions as a journalist, he begged Martsen’s help in acquiring some more film. After hours of scouring the streets, Martsen returned with just one roll of film to spare.

Chinese soldiers at Tiananmen Square

As tanks began rolling down the street, the two men noticed a single man step into the path of the massive machinery. Initially, Widener was annoyed by the unflinching individual blocking the composition. However, upon realizing that the man could very likely be killed by the oncoming tanks, Widener made the decision to capture the unbelievable scene with the very last of his resources.

Though the man in the photograph has never been identified and his fate is unknown, he gave the movement an identity when Widener’s photograph was picked up by newspapers around the world. To some, a photograph is just a photograph. But in this case, Widener managed to accomplish something much more.¬†After years of being stifled, thousands were given a voice through the actions of one man and a few frames of film.

“You could say it’s David and Goliath, but I think it goes beyond David and Goliath. Here’s this guy who is obviously just out shopping and finally he’s had enough and he goes out in the street when there’s oncoming tanks. If he’s halfway normal, he thinks he’s going to die—but he doesn’t care.”

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