Story Behind the Tiananmen Square Tank Man Photo

Jun 5, 2017

Credit Courtesy Jeff Widener

28 years ago, the city of Beijing was in chaos. Two nights earlier, Chinese authorities had cleared Tiananmen Square. On June 5, 1989, news outlets around the world showed an Associated Press photo showing someone who has come to be known as “Tank Man.”  The photographer who took that photo was on Hawai'i Island recently working on his new book about the parts of Hawaii tourists often do not seeand talked with HPR contributing reporter Sherry Bracken about what it took to get the shot.



Jeff Widener was a photographer with the Associated Press in Beijing in 1989 when Tiananmen Square exploded. 


“The night of June 3, I got caught in the middle of a burning armored car situation, I was hit in the face by a massive blow, a rock, my camera was completely smashed, blood was all over me. The burning armored car, a soldier came out to surrender to the crowd, and they killed him.”


A day later, Jeff went back out to photograph Tiananmen Square. 


“You had soldiers and trucks driving around the city, randomly killing people.  I had to take a bicycle, and ride about 2 miles, to the Beijing Hotel, that’s where the closest vantage point was.


They had security, they were using electric cattle prods on journalists, if they didn’t give up their cameras or notebooks. I hid all my lenses and camera, my film in my underwear. I expected to get arrested. “


Jeff got an American student to let him use his balcony. And after Jeff ran out of film, the student went out and convinced a tourist to give him his last roll of Fuji film.


“We heard tanks coming down the street, and some guy walks out with shopping bags this guy’s crazy, I’m waiting for him to get shot.


I took one, advanced it, no motor drive, two, three.”


The student came to the rescue a third time.  He stowed the film in his pants and got it to the American Embassy with a request to get the film to Associated Press.


Widener did not know until the next day that he’d actually gotten a photograph that Time Magazine called one of the most influential photographs of all time.


Widener said you cannot now find the Tank Man photo if you search online for it in China. 


To hear the extended interview and more stories, click here.