Tank Man: The Photo That Shocked the World

By Jane Werrell

Standing on a hotel balcony on the edge of Tiananmen Square in China, photographer Jeff Widener didn’t realize what he was about to capture would become one of the most iconic images in the world.

Almost 30 years on, he recalls how his “Tank Man” photo almost didn’t happen.

The photographer, who was shooting for The Associated Press, had suffered a blow to his head from a rock the night before, as he covered the violence and killing unfolding in Beijing.

“I was nervous, I was scared from the previous night,” he said.

The Chinese regime turned violent against student protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 and civilians were killed en masse.

“I wasn’t thinking clearly, because I was hit with a rock the night before. I waited for them to shoot him, but they didn’t shoot him. Waiting and waiting and waiting.”

Tianamen Square, June 1989. (Jeff Widener)

The image he snapped on the morning of June 5 was the moment a lone man holding his shopping bags stepped in front of a line of tanks. It’s a moment recorded for history.

There are five known photographers of the image widely known as the “Tank Man.” Jeff Widener’s shot became the most famous. It’s been named one of most influential images of all time by Time magazine.

‘Miraculously, One Picture Came Out’

“I had another lens, a longer one, then I took a gamble, put on that lens. One, two, three—then I noticed there was a problem with my camera,” Widener said.

“It was too slow a shutter speed. Then some people from the street came, and took him away. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I lost the picture.’ But miraculously, one picture came out, and that went to the rest of the world. And I guess the rest is history as they say.”

He tasked Kirk Martsen, an American exchange student who he met in the hotel, to take the film back to The Associated Press office.

“He smuggled it in his underwear, and he couldn’t find the AP office, so he took it to the U.S. Embassy. Thank god the U.S. Embassy then passed it onto the AP office,” he said. “There were truckloads of soldiers, firing on civilians.”

Civilians were killed en masse in June 1989 during the Tiananmen Square massacre. (Jeff Widener)

Identity Remains Unknown

The Tank Man’s identity remains unknown.

“We can guess and speculate all we want. But somebody in the Chinese government knows what happened to this man,” said Widener.

“The question is: there’s not only the Chinese Tank Man. What happened to the tank commander, what happened to the tank crew, what happened to the family members of the tank and the crew, what happened to the tank behind the lead tank? What happened to all these people, why hasn’t anyone spoken about what happened that day? There were people on the side of the street who witnessed it. Where are those people?”

Thirty years since the bloodshed at Tiananmen Square, the Tank Man’s name is unknown, but the image still conveys his defiance.

It’s been described as a David and Goliath moment. Widener said he’s had calls from people asking for his photograph in order to give them motivation them in life.

“A lot of people see their trials and tribulations in life summed up in this man,” he said. “I think Tank Man represents everyone’s challenge in life.”