‘Many have forgotten the brief moment China was free’, says Tiananmen ‘tank man’ photographer


Photographer behind ‘Tank Man’ image will attend Victoria Park vigil in show of remembrance

By Jeffie Lam jeffie.lam@scmp.com
South China Morning Post

The American photographer who took the iconic picture of a lone man confronting four tanks near Tiananmen Square during the June 4 crackdown will attend the annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park to commemorate the disaster’s 25th anniversary.

“More and more young people around the world have forgotten what happened in 1989 when, for a very short moment, one of the largest communist countries in the world was free,” Jeff Widener told the Post.

Jeff Widener was in Beijing working for the Associated Press on June 4, 1989. His image of “Tank Man” shocked the world. Photo: Corinna Seidel

“I want to [witness 300,000 Hongkongers] make a statement that ‘Tank Man’ and all those who died for their cause have not been forgotten.”

Widener’s picture captured a lone man – commonly identified as Wang Weilin – stood unmoving in the path of four oncoming tanks.

The picture, taken on the morning of June 4, shocked the world.

But taking it required far more than simply pressing the shutter button – it took courage and the help of equally brave people.

Despite the gunfire, Widener, a picture editor with the Associated Press at the time, headed to the Beijing Hotel, reasoning that it would offer the best vantage point of the occupied Tiananmen Square.

“At that moment, all I wanted to do was run and hide, but I knew I had no choice but to do what my job required,” he recalled. “I was scared to death.”

An American college student named Kirk Martsen led him into the hotel, which was guarded by security.

Jeff Widener was in Beijing working for the Associated Press on June 4, 1989. His image of “Tank Man” shocked the world. Photo: Jeff Widener & Associated Press

“I said ‘Hi Joe, where you been?’ And then I whispered, ‘I am from Associated Press, can I come up to your room?’,” Widener said.

The balcony of Martsen’s sixth-floor room was where Widener took the photo that has since become a piece of history.

Less well-known is that the student was also responsible for the film Widener used.

“I ran out of film. I asked Kirk if he could try to get me some more,” Widener recalled. “After about two hours, Kirk returned with one roll of 100 ISO Fuji film. He had to convince a tourist in the deserted lobby to give it up.”

Martsen also smuggled Widener’s images out of the hotel. The student stuffed the rolls of film in his underwear and cycled over to the American embassy – which helped forward the pictures to the Associated Press newsroom, and then to the world.

Looking back, Widener said both the activists and military had made mistakes in 1989.

“Though young people were killed, soldiers died as well,” he said. “The bottom line is people should have a right to decide their fate, and as long as the Beijing government denies this natural-born right of all citizens, they can never expect to sleep relaxed at night.”

Widener, now a freelance photographer in Germany, is planning an exhibition in Lucca, Italy, that will highlight images of the crackdown. He will stay in Hong Kong and hold talks about his experience until June 7.


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