Tank Man by Jeff Widener: An analysis

Tank Man

Tank Man by Jeff Widener is an unknown rebel, holding back the column of tanks for half an hour during the unrest in the Tiananmen Square in June 1989. The true name of the person, his biography, and information about his future fate are unknown. The photo was taken by Jeff Widener, an Associated Press reporter, from the sixth floor of the Beijing Hotel. It represents a man standing without a weapon in front of a column of tanks.

The photo quickly became a classic one. On the morning of June 5, 1989, the photographer Jeff Widner was on the balcony of the Beijing hotel. It was the day after the event known as the Tiananmen square massacre when Chinese troops attacked pro-democracy demonstrators, who had set up a camp in the square, and the Associated Press sent Widner to take pictures of the consequences after the event. While he was photographing bloody people, passing bicyclists and a burnt bus, a column of tanks moved from the square. When Widner set the camera focus on the column, a person appeared in front of it, at a pedestrian crossing, carrying packets of groceries. He stood right in front of the column, began to wave his hands and was not going to retreat from the path of the heavy equipment.

The tanks tried to get around him, but each time he blocked the way to the column. Widner believed that the man would simply be shot on the spot, but no one opened fire. When the man left the roadway, he was already part of the world history: Widner immortalized this act of resistance of a single person. And it was Widner’s photo (not without the help of the network of one of the world’s largest “Associated Press” agencies, of course) appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Decades later, we still do not know the name of the man who was not afraid to stand in the way of the tanks the day after a full-scale operation to suppress the mutiny in Tiananmen Square.

But we know that in order to make this photo, Wydner had to make his way to the Beijing hotel under the guise of an ordinary guest. And he, of course, has been just lucky that on that day one of the hotel rooms was filmed by an American student, Kirk Martsen. When Widner entered the hotel and went to the reception desk, the hotel’s security guards and police officers already crossed him. He also saw a young guy in a T-shirt with Rambo, shouted “Hello, Joe, how are you?”, And confidently headed for him. The guard lost interest in the guest of one of the guests and Jeff whispered to a stranger that he had been sent from the Associated Press. Kirk risked his life by taking a photographer in his room. And even more, he risked his life when Jeff found out that his film stocks were running out, and the events on the square were still going on. Tank columns and cars with soldiers, crowds of people, crushed bicycles, all this could not be removed. Shortly before Wydner ventured to enter the hotel, the military on the street just shot several hotel guests, who aroused their suspicions. But Kirk Martsen undertook to fulfill Widner’s assignment and drove to the Associated Press on a bicycle, bringing them a footage shot by a reporter.

For many years, Jeff Weidner did not even know exactly what the name of the guy who can be safely written in co-authors of historical photography, either Kurt or Kirk. But Martsen found Widner many years later, when, Widner published an article about this photo in the New York Times on the twentieth anniversary of the events in the Tiananmen Square. And after a few more years this photo was included in the collection of “The 100 most iconic photos of Time.”