Sunday, January 25, 2004
Fifteen years later, a photograph of an anonymous protester facing down a row of tanks in Beijing's Tiananmen Square still inspires astonishment.
The photograph may not be beautiful or artistic, but it is nothing short of heart-stopping. There he is, a thin young man dressed in a white shirt and dark pants squaring off against a line of tanks, a lone human figure daring a great nation's military to mow him down in plain sight.
The setting is Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the world's largest public plaza, now well-remembered as the site of the climactic showdown between student protesters and China's socialist government 15 years ago this June.
The protesters had gathered to oppose government corruption, restrictions on free speech and joblessness, all which led the government to send tens of thousands of troops from the People's Liberation Army. They rumbled to the square in armored personnel carriers.
Jeff Widener, then a 33-year-old American Associated Press picture editor based in Bangkok, was photographing the melee at about 1 a.m. on June 4 when a brick, thrown by a protester, hit him in the face. With a bloody nose and a concussion, he bicycled the two miles to the AP's Beijing office and then to his hotel.
Still woozy the next day, he headed back to the square, crossing streets littered with burnt buses and smashed bicycles. He'd heard that soldiers were using electric cattle prods to force photojournalists to surrender their equipment, so when Widener stumbled upon a visiting American, a student he knew only as Kurt, he asked to take pictures from the young man's room on the sixth floor of the Beijing Hotel, not far from Tiananmen Square.
Out of film, he hastily borrowed a roll from Kurt and watched the crucial event unfold about half a mile away on a street leading to the square.
"The protester walks out and I'm thinking, 'This guy is going to screw up my (photograph),"' Widener told Smithsonian's Dana Calvo. "That's how messed up I was. I knew they were going to shoot him, so I got focused and waited for them to shoot him. Then he started to walk up to the tank."
Only after Widener had squeezed the shutter a few times did he realize his camera's setting was wrong for the borrowed film. Too late: Several students grabbed the protester and pulled him out of the tanks' path.
Widener gave the film to Kurt, who stuffed the roll into his underwear and bicycled past soldiers to the AP office. After being developed, the grainy photograph was transmitted on the AP news wire within hours. A decade and a half later, Widener's photograph retains all of its potency.
"It's an urgently important message about what you can do if you have the guts to do it," says Mickey Spiegel, a China specialist at Human Rights Watch in New York City, who has hung the photograph in every office she has occupied since 1989.
Richard Baum, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, says there's "an emotional legacy to that shot. I think that has cost China more in public image than any other single image in modern times."
Widener, now 47 and a staff photographer for The Honolulu Advertiser in Hawaii, has considered going to China to revisit the story.
"The picture's part of my life now," says the photographer. "His message was, 'Enough's enough. There's been enough killing. It's got to stop."'