Tank Man (1989) – The Unknown Protester by Jeff Widener

A great essay by my buddy Martin who is starting a YouTube series on analyzing the masters of photography:

MARTIN: What’s up photography fans? My name is Martin and I am a photographer from Czech Republic. I have recently started a Youtube channel where I talk about street photography. However, I have been photography fan much longer than that. I have also been Eric’s fan for quite some time and finally started to “create more” after I participated in his workshop ( about which I have posted to the forum if you are interested https://forum.erickimphotography.com/thread/eric-kim-workshop-experience

Anyways, what I am focusing on with my Youtube channel at the moment is the topic of street photography, photography masters and the story behind the photograph. Today I am very happy I can share with you my latest “piece of content”. The story behind the Tank Man. As the photo is more relevant that ever I am going to take a closer at the story behind the photograph as well as the composition. 

Tank Man (1989) – the Unknown Protester by Jeff Widener. 

The photograph we are looking at was taken in 1989. Now, to understand why this photo is so important, we have to first understand the circumstances of the time when it was taken. 

As this event was heavily covered by media you might probably think why the media would be invited over. Now, the protest actually started as a memorial when the popular reformist leader Hu Hujabeng died in April 1989. In the next days, thousands of students assembled at Tiananmen Square demanding reforms. The protests grew week after week to more than 1 million people. During that time the leader of Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev arrived to China to improve the relations. It was a first time in 30 years that leader of Soviet Union would visit China. However when he arrived he had to enter the great hall of the people through the back entrance because of the demonstrations. 

Tank Man by Jeff Widener

Photo: https://www.instagram.com/p/BMxb38QgBP3/

Now, moving forward: on June 4th the protests that started on April 15th as student demonstrations were suppressed by force by Chinese government. Chinese government saw the protests in Beijing of ’89 Democracy Movement as a threat to the communist regime and called over 300 thousand soldiers to suppress the protests This event became known as the June Fourth Incident or Tiananmen Square Massacre. Death count estimates vary from several hundreds to serval thousands with thousands of protesters and bystanders injured by Chinese troops. 

Now, it is June 5th, the day after the incident and photographer Jeff Widener takes one of the most iconic photographs of the 20 century. After roaming the streets of Beijing Widener he decides to go to the Beijing Hotel. It is not an easy task since the hotel security is determined not to allow photojournalists to keep their cameras. With a help of an American college student Kirk Martsen he is able to hide in his room on the fourth floor. After some time Widener runs out of film and ask Martsen go get him some more film rolls. He gets back after few hours with one roll of film. A line of Tanks is coming toward Widener when suddenly a guy with probably shopping bags walks in front of the tanks and stops just in the middle of the road. It is however too far away to take a good shot. Widener reaches for his tele convertor, puts it on the lens and takes 3 shots from the balcony. The first two are blurry. The last one is sharp. Jeff Widener just took one of the most iconic photographs of the 20 century. 

Next day the image is everywhere. After all those years the Tank Man still remains unidentified which makes him a great symbol of resistance. 

When we look at the composition we see the tanks on the diagonal . Those parallel lines and even arrows enhance the effect of this immense power heading towards this ordinary man. It truly is the David and goliath of 20th century. 

Also it is good to know that Widener was not the only one who took this kind of shot that. I think his photo is the most known because it was published fastest. It is an iconic picture and I think it is important to remember historic events like this. Especially nowadays. 

(If you want to find more information you can find all sources and interesting pages in the description of the video) 

See more videos by MARTIN on his Youtube channel >

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