Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Tiananmen Square two decades later, the man in the white shirt facing down the tanks... would you do the same?

Stuart Franklin, © Magnum Photos
This is one of the most important photographs to be published in my lifetime. I have thought about it many times, it was the seed of one unpublished novel, it has guided my sometime Quixotic adventures in free speech, and it touches my soul. It happened 20 years and two days ago in Tiananmen Square in China. It remains the most heroic moment I know.

Blogger Mike Johnson posted this photograph along with a thought provoking discussion of the image and the moment under the brilliant title "Witness" in March of 2006. He notes three photographers made nearly the same image -- Stuart Franklin, Charlie Cole, and another photographer (Cole identified the third photographer as Arthur Chang of Reuters) in addition to a videographer.

Johnson said he could find little written by Franklin about the moment but he did find some interesting material written by Cole, who won an important prize, the 1990 World Press Photo of the Year, for the image. Someone identifying himself as Charlie Cole actually responded to Johnson's blog, posting in the comments section. Here is just one part of what he had to say, and, to me, it speaks nearly as much as the image:

"For me the shot of the young man facing down the tanks isn’t an award winner, or a stand alone, or any of that. Quite simply for me, it's the testament of a man who defined probably most important moment of his life rather than letting the moment define him..."

The urge to preach, here, is strong. Let me just say I think it is important for each of us to learn to stand up to the tanks that are bearing down on us. Look at the inspiration one man in a white shirt with two shopping bags created through a single futile act of bravery. A non-violent act, I might add. What excuses do we have for not being as brave ourselves?

And, to photographers -- is this not why you load film in your cameras? To bear witness...
Incidentally, I saw this event with my wife on our honeymoon. We watched it on a television in a small pastry shop in the French Quarter. I began my first (yet unpublished) novel on the way home on a napkin in a Waffle House in West Memphis, the brave moment I had seen on the television fresh in mind.

Lofflin -- Urging you to visit this thoughtful 2006 blog entry... And if you are a photographer, partake of this excellent discussion of the controversial nature of photography in today's NY Times.


  1. That photo is not the basis of a novel. It is a novel unto itself. I have been fortunate enough to visit Tiananmen Square...the tank tracks were still visible in the asphalt. This clearly has to be one of the top three images of the 20th Century.

  2. So many links, so little time.

    Mike Johnson's post is interesting, as is the link to the story of one of the photographer's experience.

    The stories behind the great photographs are almost as interesting as the photos. For some reason the "Tank Man" made me think of Vietnam and the two images that are seared into my brain: Nick Ut's shot of the naked 9 year-old girl running down a road, and Eddie Adams' shot of Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting Vietcong operative Nguyen Van Lem in the head.

    Nick's story is here:

    And here is Eddie's story: