A solitary figure in a white shirt and black trousers clutches a bag and stands in front of a column of halted tanks, a cluster of street lights floating to one side like balloons. The man’s shoulders are rounded, almost passive in front of the four tanks whose gun barrels are raised as if in an ironic salute.
Thirty years on from the violent crushing of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the man’s identity remains unknown; it is by no means certain he is still alive.
However, the photograph that captured his solitary moment of dissent in June 1989 remains one of the most memorable images of the past century, known universally as Tank Man.
Jeff Widener was not the only photographer to capture the scene, but it is his image — listed as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential of all time — that has become the most famous.
“Every Tank Man photo has a different flavor. I think I was lucky I was using such a fine-grained film. It allowed it to be blown up larger. I think mine also has a more ‘Gandhi’ feel. He looks more vulnerable: a common man asking a question, like: ‘Why are you doing this?’ My feeling is that this guy had no concern for his safety. He was fed up and just didn’t care. He just wanted answers.”
Speaking to the Observer before the 30th anniversary of the protests, Widener recalled that the picture was almost not taken, as circumstances conspired against him at almost every turn.
On the day Tank Man was taken, June 5, 1989, the then-Associated Press (AP) photographer had flu and was concussed from a blow to the head the night before that had destroyed one of his cameras. He had also run out of film and only managed to secure a roll by asking a US exchange student from whose hotel balcony he was working to scrounge some for him.
Changing lenses in the midst of the encounter, later reimagined in Lucy Kirkwood’s play and television series Chimerica, Widener almost missed the moment, managing to shoot just three pictures before the man with the shopping bags was hustled away.
Of those three photographs, two were not in sharp enough focus. The third, however, made Widener and his unknown subject famous.
“I broke the cardinal rule. I ran out of film. So I asked this kid [the exchange student] to get me more. He’s gone for hours and when he comes back he has one roll of Fuji 100 ISO,” a much slower speed of film than Widener was used to.
Widener decided to take a nap, but was woken by the sound of tanks.
“There’s these four tanks and I think it is a nice composition. Then this guy comes out of nowhere. At first I’m thinking this guy is going to screw up my composition, but the student is shouting: ‘They’re gonna kill him, they’re gonna kill him!’” Widener said.
“He’s just standing there. I’m watching, watching, watching. He’s a long way off,” he said.
Risking missing the photo, Widener, now 62, rushed to grab a teleconverter to double the focal length of his lens, returning to the balcony moments before Tank Man disappeared.
He had just enough time to take one shot in focus, before asking the student to smuggle the film out of the hotel to the US embassy in his underwear from where it could be sent to his office.
It was a tremendous coup for a photographer who was not even based in China, but had been called in to help out the AP’s Beijing office at a time of huge political turmoil.