Resource‘s own Charlie Fish has interviewed Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener for our Spring 2013 Issue. The article, which includes iconic photographs taken one day after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, is featured below:
By Jeff Widener – Words by Charlie Fish
For seven weeks in the spring of 1989, student protesters occupied Tiananmen Square, located in the heart of Beijing. Their cries for more freedoms and government reform soon gained widespread traction, spurring sympathizers and support across more than 400 cities in the country.
However, a crackdown soon ensued. Party members who were in alignment with the cause were ousted. Martial law was declared, and more than 300,000 troops were deployed in Beijing. Between June 3rd and 4th, armed troops opened fire on unarmed civilians and protesters in the Square, resulting in what is known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In the aftermath of the riots, China instituted an immediate silencing of all discussion surrounding the events. Foreign journalists were kicked out of the country, and all forms of discussion or remembrance of the protests within China have been banned ever since. The death toll remains unofficial, with numbers ranging wildly from the hundreds to the thousands.
On June 5th, 1989, one day after the violence, as a column of 35-ton battle tanks barreled along Chang’an Avenue, a lone man carrying two shopping bags stood on the avenue, determined to halt the procession with nonviolence. From the nearby Beijing Hotel, Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener snapped but a handful of images from his sixth-floor vantage point. It was a blur of activity, but a resulting image has gone on to symbolize one of the most significant and widely recognized moments in recent history.
Resource interviewed Jeff, whose eloquent retelling of the events surrounding that fateful day is candid, gripping, and harrowing. To this day, no one knows what became of the “Tank Man,” and many Chinese have never seen any of the images or videotapes from that day.
Part One: The Making of a Photojournalist
I had a rather unconventional childhood. My father, Don Widener, was a city newspaper editor in Southern California and later an award-winning producer at KNBC in Burbank, CA… One day my father brought a LIFE magazine photographer friend, Leigh Wiener, to the house to make some family portraits. Leigh opened a battered leather bag and my eyes popped open. Inside was a toy store full of camera bodies, lenses, filters, light meters, motor drives and boxes of yellow Kodak film. I never forgot that sight, and the early seeds of photography formed.
While attending high school, a photo instructor named Harry Ibach spotted me wandering the hallways with a beat-up Topcon Auto 100 camera. Harry offered to enroll me in his photography class and I accepted. This was my first taste of darkroom basics with developing and printing, but after time I realized something was missing. The class was mostly fine art while I was more interested in photographing people. During the 1972 presidential campaign, I rode my bicycle to a campaign rally held at a shopping mall. I sneaked past the press ropes and, after getting kicked out multiple times, a sympathetic news photographer hid me from the Secret Service and I photographed Senators George McGovern and Ted Kennedy. The series of images produced my first photography award in the 1972 Los Angeles Photo Center competition. Appropriately, it was in the photojournalism category. One day, Ibach showed the class the work of Czech photographer Josef Koudelka. It was a revelation—this was the direction I wanted to go, and it would have a profound impact on my work to this day. For me, his work captured the human condition more than anyone I had seen.
What it Takes.
I realized early on that I would have to earn my way in the world. My passion for photography was all consuming and I had to earn enough money to buy camera equipment. At age fifteen I managed an illegal night-shift job at a Jack In The Box restaurant. The hours were long; I often fell asleep in class. I hated the job, but flipping burgers brought in a new lens every two weeks. While other teens were making out in the back of their Volkswagens, I was riding around on a Schwinn bicycle with a 500mm lens over my shoulder. To be a successful photojournalist, there can be no doubt—especially these days. It takes an incredible amount of commitment and luck to make it.
Seeing “Tank Man” Among the Greats.
The photo of a lone man stopping a column of tanks during the 1989 Tiananmen uprising has become my signature image. But at the time, I was suffering from a severe case of the flu and a massive concussion, and really did not think much of the image. Though the photo grew in stature through the years, I became a bit ambivalent. Backtracking to 1971, while thumbing through the pages of a Time–Life photography book, a strange sensation befell me. Something told me that maybe, just maybe, I would some day have a great image like the ones in that book. In 2005, I was on the Internet and spied an AOL link headlined “The 10 Most Memorable Photos of All Time.” As I scanned the link, there was Nick Ut’s Vietnam napalm girl, Eddie Adams’ Saigon photo, the Kent State shootings, the Hindenburg crash from the 1930s, and even Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon. Then a familiar photograph appeared of a lone man standing in front of a column of tanks. A grin overcame me, and I think at that moment I finally realized I had something special… an iconic image.
On Experiencing Great Moments.
Sometimes I feel like one of these interplanetary space probes that shoot away at the solar system but take years to transmit all the data. The period leading up through the 1990s was a blur of nonstop airline flights and long queues at customs. Major world events became commonplace; nothing was out of the ordinary but, now looking back, I would have to say that some of the more memorable moments were: hitting seven Gs while flying inverted in an F-16 fighter jet. Asking astronaut Buzz Aldrin during a private breakfast what it was like taking off from the surface of the moon. Narrowly escaping a kidnapping by the Khmer Rouge during UN sponsored elections in Cambodia. The blackness of night in Hanoi as a cyclo peddled me to dinner. The multiple street demonstrations. The sheer awe of the Kobe earthquake in Japan, and the ash-buried Ford dealership in the Philippines following the Mount Pinatubo eruption. The bar nights with colleagues in Phnom Penh as gunfire crackled in the distance. Helping Dennis [Thatcher] with his point-and-shoot at the request of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during a private boat trip on the Chao Phraya River in Thailand. Getting in a scuffle with a French photographer as Princess Diana giggled. Then there was the Pope arriving in the jungles of Papua New Guinea in his white jeep, arms outreached as natives beat drums and sang in Pidgin. I got choked up during the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Seoul Olympics when Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame. Standing on the South Pole while covering the National Science Foundation… This is only a small sample of what I have seen. Luck has played a major role in much of it.
Part Two: That Day
Getting Past Customs and into China.
As the Southeast Asia Picture Editor based in Bangkok, it was my job to cover stories in the region. After being denied entry into China, I decided to fly to Hong Kong. I told the U.S. Embassy that I had lost my passport and they issued me a new one without previous Chinese immigration stamps. I then went to a small travel agency who organized a tourist visa for me. New York headquarters requested I carry in supplies and equipment, which concerned me—tourists don’t normally carry 600mm lenses and picture transmitters around in their luggage. Just as I was about to reach the customs official in Beijing Airport, a loud commotion rang out at the end of the counters. An old lady with a live chicken was arguing and yelling, so I slipped my baggage cart past the counter, through the sliding doors and out to a line of waiting taxis.
The Mounting Tension.
For a week my routine was to arrive at the Tiananmen Square at sunrise and document the pro-democracy supporters. I recall how organized they were and sensed their excitement and hope. This would soon change. On the late evening of June 3rd, 1989, an AP reporter and I peddled our bicycles to the Square, and I told him that I had a bad feeling that night. This was confirmed when a toothless old man later walked over to me, chattering something, and opened a heavy dark jacket. Inside was a large blood-soaked hatchet. He looked like the proud owner of a recently captured trophy fish. The fate of the victim was uncertain but unpromising. Minutes later a burning armored car came down the Chang Ahn Boulevard near the Great Hall of the People. Protesters followed and jammed steel barricades into the treads. My camera flash was low on power, and that situation became one of the most frustrating moments in my career.
Action was everywhere but, as the APC burned, I could only make one image a minute. Suddenly my cameras were jerked from me as a mob started to wrestle. I feared I would be torn apart, as if by a pack of pit bulls. I raised my passport over my head and screamed, “American!” One leader came over and calmed the crowd. He ordered me to take a photo of a dead soldier on the ground. I managed one image of the protester holding a steel spike over the body. Then I spotted a man rolling around on the ground engulfed in flames. I looked down at the camera, waiting for the “ready” light to go on. The delay was agonizing but actually saved my life. The second I raised the Nikon, a massive blow struck me in the face, giving me a concussion. Blood was all over my shattered camera. Just then I looked up at the back door of the blazing APC. A soldier had jumped out to surrender, but the crowd moved in on him with knives, clubs, and rocks. I thought two things: 1) I was losing the Pulitzer Prize, and 2) I should feel ashamed, knowing the soldier would lose his life. There was nothing I could do. It happened so fast.
Bruised, Bloodied and with a Concussion.
The concussion was so bad I was asking protesters if anyone had a flash when I did not even have a complete camera to attach it to. I struggled back to the AP office, past burning and exploding buses and red tracers arching over the Tiananmen Square from large caliber machine-gun fire. It was like a slow-motion scene out of Apocalypse Now. Back at the office, Beijing photo chief Mark Avery had to pull my film out of the camera with pliers. The student-thrown rock had ripped the top of the Nikon F3 titanium body and shattered the mirror, as well as having bent the titanium shutter. The camera absorbed the impact, sparing my life. Had it been a lesser camera, I would not be doing this interview.
The High Risks of Getting the Shot.
AP New York headquarters sent a message to their Beijing office asking for someone to “not take any unnecessary chances but please photograph the occupied Tiananmen Square.” I was already rattled and scared and this was not what I wanted to hear. The best vantage point was the Beijing Hotel. I rode a bicycle past burned out buses and blood soaked pavement as the sound of distant gunfire rang out in the city. I am no hero and was scared to death. I can’t begin to explain what it’s like to put yourself in harm’s way when every muscle screams: run!
A Close Call at the Hotel.
I had a Nikon FE2 camera hidden in my back pocket and a 400mm lens in my jacket. Film was in my underwear. After arriving at the hotel, I walked passed Chinese security. I knew I had to think fast. They had used electric cattle prods and confiscated film from other journalists. In the shadows of the lobby was a young college kid named Kurt. I pretended to know him and we scrambled to the elevator as the approaching security turned and walked away. Kurt told me how only minutes before a truckload of soldiers had shot some guests in the front of the hotel. Their bodies were pulled inside by staff. Kurt narrowly escaped by hiding behind a taxi. After exposing all my film from the room’s sixth floor balcony, I asked him to try and find more film. He arrived two hours later with one roll of Fuji 100 ISO, which he wrangled from a remaining tourist in the hotel.
Fumbling For a Shot of the Oncoming Tanks.
When the sound of oncoming tanks came down the street, I told Kurt that the man in front of the tanks was going to “screw up my composition.” He yelled, “They are going to kill him!” I aimed my 400m lens and realized I was too far away. I gambled and ran for the teleconverter lying on the bed. I took three images until I realized the shutter speed was too low. By the time I figured out what happened, the man was whisked away by bystanders. To this day, nobody knows what happened to him. I recall sitting down in a chair adjacent to the window afterward with Kurt asking me if I got the picture. I was upset with myself because I had forgotten that the ISO was three stops less sensitive than my usual 800 ISO film. The shutter speed was on automatic but at 60th of a second. It would be impossible with a 800mm focal length lens to produce a sharp image. Kurt agreed to smuggle my film out of the hotel at great risk. Not finding the AP office, he handed the film over to the U.S. Embassy, which then forwarded it to the AP bureau, which was located inside the diplomatic compound.
A miracle had happened. One image was sharp enough and the next day fronted almost every major newspaper in the world, including two pages in LIFE magazine and the cover of TIME.
The “Tank Man” photo was taken with a Nikon 400mm F5.6 EDIF internal focus lens with a Nikon teleconverter with a focal length of around 800mm. I had only one roll of Fuji 100 ISO film with three shots taken. The lens was later dropped and lost during the diplomatic compound shooting while fleeing down an alley. Rumors surfaced later that it had been found and was being used by a photographer in the Czech Republic.
The Day After.
The response was overwhelming. A clipboard of telegrams awaited me in the office with congratulations. Publications around the world wanted exclusive interviews. Even AP President, Lou Boccardi, sent a congratulatory message. Everyone was talking about it. The image went on to get nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, win the Scoop Award in France, the Chia Award in Italy and a number of other citations. My former high school teacher saw the picture on the front page of the Los Angeles Times without a byline. He took it to class to show his students, stating that every few years a photo icon is made and this was such a time. Later on, he received a copy of LIFE magazine with a note from me. It was the first time he realized the image was mine.
I am in the middle of a book project to pitch to publishers this spring. We envision it as a photo album of my work taken during my tour as Southeast Asia Photo Editor from 1987–1995. We hope to have it out for the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen in June of 2014.