Tank Man. Tian’anmen. 1989. These three words conjure up the iconic image – a man, on Beijing’s Avenue of Eternal Peace, blocking a People’s Liberation Army tank from rolling ahead.
You’ve seen the image. Now meet the photojournalist, Jeff Widener, coming to Hong Kong.
In advance, AAJA-Asia President Ramy Inocencio asked Widener to share thoughts on his association with attempts at Chinese democracy and his historic shot seen around the world.
A quarter century has passed since the events of June 4, 1989 on Tian’anmen Square and across China. How do you feel about being known as “the” man who photographed the now iconic “Tank Man” image?
There were four other photographers who made a still image of “Tank Man.” For me, the picture has been a blessing and a curse in that it has been a distraction from my other body of work. On the upside, “Tank Man” has opened a lot of doors for me through the years. People who normally would not have given me the time of day have suddenly found time to chat. I have been invited to many events to speak. I never thought I would lecture at Harvard University but that did happen a few weeks ago. The BBC flew me to Beijing on the 20th anniversary and I met a young German schoolteacher named Corinna. We were married the following year in Hawaii. Through the years, the “Tank Man” and my association have taken on a progressively higher profile. “Tank Man” is now part of my life and I guess since no one seems to know where he is, I get to be the one to share his story. That’s not such a bad thing.
On that day — that instant — when you took the famous photo, what was going through your head at that exact moment?
The event was too far away and I had to make a quick decision to grab a teleconverter from the bed which would have doubled the focal length of my Nikon 400mm lens to an 800mm at the risk of losing the picture, or play it safe and have an image that was too far away and grainy. I gambled, barely making the image in time.
Did you ever try to find out what happened to “Tank Man?” What did you find, if even the smallest of leads?
So far I have no concrete proof. Rumors I have heard are that the tank driver knew the “Tank Man.” Other rumors (purport) that “Tank Man” was upset because his girlfriend was killed by the military. But again, these are just rumors without any confirmation and I cannot even recall where I heard them from.
After 25 years — honestly — do you get tired talking about your famous photo? Why or why not?
Yes and no. Right now I am trying to concentrate on a major solo photo exhibition in Italy and I actually should be in Lucca right now but because of the importance of the 25th anniversary (of the 1989 Tian’anmen Square crackdown), I feel compelled to be in Hong Kong. I want to feel the pulse of 300,000 citizens marching in memory of “Tank Man” so that the world will not forget the incredible feat that this single individual accomplished. It’s just awe-inspiring to see such loyal support for this great act.
How do you feel when you look on China’s evolution — in any sense of the word from political, to economic and socio-cultural — since 1989?
Well, I am not an expert on China affairs. I am just a guy who loves photography and managed to be in the wrong place at the right time. However, I will say that at each visit to Beijing I have noticed a gradual improvement in the economy with better disposition of the Chinese people. In other words, the citizens seem to be happier on the outside but on the inside may be another matter.
Do you go back often? Did you ever fear you were a marked man in Beijing’s eyes?
I returned on the 20th anniversary. I was never quite sure whether I was being watched but one curious thing happened at the airport on my departure. The average tourist took about 30-60 seconds to be processed by immigration. When my turn came up, my customs agent went through a stream of emotional postures. Sometimes he frowned, other times smiled, but one thing is for sure, my 20-minute processing time was clearly longer than the other passengers.
You’ve covered so many other events since 1989, what are you working on today?
Right now I am trying to preserve and organize my archives going back to age 12. It is a daunting task. I am also working on two book projects and with a curator who is organizing a major photo retrospective in Italy. Once I have caught up with these events in my life, I hope to return to serious documentary photography.
What best words of professional advice can you impart to photojournalists now in the field and for students who want to follow your path?
The journalism business is going through great changes. It is apparent that one will not get rich as a photojournalist so this will be a profession that requires a real sense of purpose for the sheer joy and self fulfillment it brings. For students wanting to run off to war zones, my advice is to carefully calculate the risks and tread with utmost caution. It’s not like the movies. I have almost been killed several times in my career and only a miracle saved me from a rock to the head during the June 4th massacre at Tian’anmen Square. Going down the ‘conflict road’ can lead you towards death’s door so extreme caution is required. During the diplomatic compound shooting following the events of June 4th, I found myself under attack by a truckload of soldiers firing automatic weapons. I jumped out of a cyclo (foot-powered tricycle), dropping the Nikon 400mm lens that made the “Tank Man” photo and ran off like a scared schoolgirl. I am no hero and I sure as hell was not going to die like one.
CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout and AAJA supporter continues the conversation, hosting an hour-long session and audience Q&A with Jeff Widener, June 7 at the 2014 New.Now.Next International Media Conference in Hong Kong, June 6-8. Register now.