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Tank Man

tankman

The NYT has a photojournalism blog that I hadn’t paid much attention to, but I will from now on. It’s called Lens: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism, and it had two great entries this week as part of the NYT coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Chinese government’s crackdown of protestors at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. In the first of the two posts, Tank Man of Tiananmen, the four photographers who took the now-iconic photos of the young man standing in front of the tanks discuss where they were and what they did.

But it’s the second post — A New Angle on History — that really grabbed me. Having seen the first post, the journalist Terril Jones contacted the NYT to share the story of his own tank man photo, taken a minutes earlier and never before published. A low resolution version is above, but go to the NYT site to see the higher-resolution image. It allows us to better appreciate the deliberateness of tank man’s action, as he took his position long before the tanks reached that spot. Here’s part of what Mr. Jones writes:

Adrenaline and the drive to stay close to the action took me back to the street on June 5. I was in front of the Beijing Hotel and I could hear tanks revving up and making their way toward us from Tiananmen. I went closer to the street and looked down Changan Avenue over several rows of parked bicycles when another volley of shots rang out from where the tanks were, and people began ducking, shrieking, stumbling and running toward me. I lifted my camera and squeezed off a single shot before retreating back behind more trees and bushes where hundreds of onlookers were cowering. I didn’t know quite what I had taken other than tanks coming toward me, soldiers on them shooting in my direction, and people fleeing.

I stayed in Beijing for another month, until after Tiananmen Square and the Gate of Heavenly Peace were reopened to the public. It was only some time after I returned to Tokyo that, as I was going through my negatives, I printed this photo and noticed that I, too, had captured the so-called “tank man,” but from a completely different angle. He is small but unmistakable as he stands in the center of Changan Jie, clearly positioning himself for a confrontation with the approaching army. I was stunned to see him in my photo because his image had become a global icon of the events in Beijing. But I made the discovery several weeks after the fact, and the A.P. had already sent out a defining photo of that moment. So I filed away my picture …

Not that it matters, but I remember watching news of the Tiananmen Square protests in my Paris hotel room. I was there visiting my sister and her family on my way to a math conference at the famous mathematical conference center in Oberwolfach, Germany. I would have left Paris on the 4th on the train to Strasbourg, then taken a train to Offenburg and another train into the mountains to Oberwolfach, a trip I used to make regularly. Oberwolfach wasn’t the best place to keep up with the news, so I might have missed out on some of the coverage once I got there. (It also happens to be where I was on another fateful day, April 26, 1986, when the nuclear reactor exploded in Chernobyl. I didn’t have a proper sense of how alarmed I should be, given that we weren’t all that far away.)

Categories: History, Photojournalism
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