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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

T.O.P. Ten: Number 7

Stuart Franklin, © Magnum Photos

Witness


Fortunately, it is not very natural for one human being to kill another. Normal people don't like it. Some normal people who become killers do so for greed or self-interest or simply for status, but organized sprees of killing are usually led or instigated by a few sociopaths and sadists, who also statistically do far more than their "share" of it; more ordinary people, less equipped psychologically for the task, have to be inured to it by gradual habituation if they are going to do it and keep doing it. They may be driven to it in the first place by real or perceived self-preservation, demonization of some "other," through compulsion of some sort (soldiers are often given little choice), or through a sense of duty or necessity, real or imagined.

Unfortunately, the sadistic psychopaths who do the most killing are numerous enough that history is pockmarked with numberless massacres. Mass graves hidden in forests; buildings full of people burned; regular gunfire that continues throughout a night, with everyone within earshot too frightened to go outside. We hear about only a few of these, and we cannot reasonably dwell on their enormity. Two hundred, six hundred, thousands, more—we must have developed mental mechanisms to keep the pity of such things at bay.

The human tendency is to attach more meaning and emotion to small, vivid, personalized incidents than to far larger ones that are more abstract. I cannot wrap my mind around the losses of Nagasaki, or Dresden. Instead, I remember small details. In the Killing Fields of Pol Pot, an old Thai woman who became permanently hysterically blind after seeing her pregnant daughter machine-gunned to death; a Hutu with a machete asking his victims, "long sleeve or short sleeve?" giving them a preference as to where they would like their arms chopped off; the pitiful photograph of Chief Big Foot, frozen solid where he fell at the massacre of Wounded Knee; Nick Ut's picture of the naked, burned Vietnamese girl fleeing down the road; an old Japanese man standing on a street corner, one of many whose mission it was to educate the children of Hiroshima about the horrors of the bomb. Many people perished at Hiroshima, but they are faceless to me. I can't forget that old man's face.

What the old man was doing on the streets of Hiroshima was giving witness. Photography is particularly suited to giving witness, but seldom to the greater or broader events, only the smaller ones—the ones we tend to latch on to and remember. Occasionally, those small incidents transcend their contexts to stand for something much larger or greater.

At least four still photographers and at least one videographer recorded this incident. It happened on China's Tiananmen Square on the morning June 5th, 1989, during the Chinese government's crackdown on the remnants of more than a million unruly pro-democracy protesters who had occupied the square for many days. The still photographers I know of were NEWSWEEK's Charlie Cole, Stuart Franklin of Magnum, and Jeff Widener of the AP. As if on impulse, a lone figure suddenly appeared out of the crowd and stood before an advancing column of tanks. The lead tank tried to go around him. He sidestepped quickly, a skipping movement, to stay in front of it. The tank went the other way. Again the man blocked it. The tank came to a stop. The tank commander refused to run over or gun down the protester. The standoff lasted for half an hour; finally, the man jumped up on the tank itself and had a brief conversation with the tank commander, then rejoined the crowd.

As with any symbolic event as famous as this one has become, it has been subject to endless hagiography, revisionism, and even satire. The Chinese government later referred to the man in the white shirt with the shopping bags as "a lone scoundrel." Others rank him among the 20th century's greatest heroes.

Charlie Cole, who photographed alongside Stuart Franklin, gives a harrowing description of what it was like to get the shot. He describes being beaten and poked with a cattle prod, having his film torn out of his cameras and then his cameras taken from him. He had to hide the roll of film with his own picture of the incident in the resevoir of a hotel toilet to keep it from being confiscated.

The man, sometimes called "tank man" or "the unknown hero," has never been conclusively identified. It is likely he paid for his brief, transcendent moment with his life, although it is possible he is still alive. And although many demonstrators died in the government's crackdown, it is possible to argue that the Chinese government was being nearly as restrained as the commander of the lead tank.

Many of history's tragic massacres have been secret, or covered up, or have simply been forgotten: no witnesses survive. Even in this case, when Chinese government soldiers killed thousands of demonstrators in broad daylight in the middle of Beijing, the cover-up has been effective, if only in China: most young Chinese today know nothing of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations or its eventual suppression. Photography allowed the whole world to witness to this one man's glory, hwever, a small truth that stood for much more. It remains one of the most vivid moments I've witnessed in my lifetime, an electrifying act of almost inconceivable bravery. The photographs and video footage will keep the larger occasion alive and memorable forever.

Stuart Franklin, whose picture of the incident I marginally prefer, has not said a great deal about the experience that I can find. As for the more articulate Charlie Cole, he reported this in NEWSWEEK: "Several days after the massacres, I argued with hotel workers over a room bill. I asked for a discount because hotel access had been dicey 'due to what happened in Tiananmen Square.' Back came the Orwellian answer: 'Nothing happened in Tiananmen Square.' "

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

FEATURED COMMENT from Charlie Cole: "Mike, I found your thoughts on man's murderous side and the relationship to massacres thought provoking. The other photographer who shot the Tiananmen Tank shot is Arthur Chang with Reuters. In 1990 I was awarded the World Press Photo of the Year for the photo, which I thought was a mistake, as I have always contended that Stuart Franklin should’ve shared the award with me if they were intent on awarding it for that photo and I told WPP so when they contacted me to announce it. The quality of the shot is not what either Stuart or myself would have liked, but something that all photographers should understand about the situation is that after the initial crackdown, it became almost impossible to be on the streets as a westerner. Martial law had been declared, and on two separate occasions I came under fire while trying to shoot, once no less in a diplomatic compound where David and Peter Turnley and myself had taken up a position over a line of tanks. 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, and I and the other shooters were very privileged to have witnessed it.

Sincerely, Charlie Cole

P.S. I never argued over the hotel bill, that was Newsweek Hong Kong Bureau Chief Melinda Liu.

26 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, Mike, but A great photograph should stand alone. While the video (seen so often on the News)is magnificant, this photograph is meaningless without the accompanying explaination.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Obviously, I beg to differ.

2:53 PM  
Blogger Motto! said...

You'd have to have lived under several feet of rock and never attended school to not know what this photo is about. Even failing that, man in front of tank says it all.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

I must thank you, Anonymous #1, because you inspired an essay for my monthly B&WP column: it'll be called "In Praise of Captions." Generally, I never bought that old truism "A great photograph should stand alone." Who says so? I like captions. I almost always want to know the who-what-where-how-why.

However, if there was EVER a news picture in history that DOES stand alone, it's got to be this one!

4:24 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

And anyway, it doesn't stand alone. It's a cultural artifact that means something to millions of people . I can remember that day as clear as yesterday and I always will (even though I was 4000 miles away). So do many other people. That's the power of that photo. It isn't "art". It's about something and has all sorts of baggage. So, if you think about it, it couldn't "stand alone" even if it wanted to.

6:52 PM  
Anonymous ankit said...

Who cares about fake truisms like "a great photograph should stand alone". I dont believe thats true at all. In fact, I would go ahead and say "No photograph (or art, for that matter) can ever stand alone." Art is a cultural and social thing that does not (and can not) exist in vacuum. The fact that this photo (or any other) requires a back-story to really appreciate it only increases its value for me. If this isnt art, nothing is.

8:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"....finally, the man jumped up on the tank itself and had a brief conversation with the tank commander, then rejoined the crowd...."

My memory may not serve but in the video I saw of this I thought I remember that eventualy another person, presumably a friend, came out from the crowd, grabbed his buddy and dragged him out of the way and back to the crowd.

8:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Notice the appaling technical quality of this picture. It is unsharp, vignetting is terrible, the color is poor and we can't see the face of the main person. Shadow detail is completely lost. There is a reflection on the right side, from a curtain or maybe from the photogapher's shirt. In any online critique forum this picture would have been rejected as useless.

Does it matter? No. It is rightly one of the greatest pictures from the last century. Pixel peepers please take note.

11:40 PM  
Anonymous Chris Irwin said...

For some good examples of why captions can be crucial, try Stephen Gill's audio portraits and billboard pictures.

http://www.stephengill.co.uk/audio/index.htm

6:47 AM  
Anonymous Benjamin Thompson said...

This picture, more than any other, sends chills up my spine when I see it. I'm getting them right now. To be that man - it's nearly unfathomable. What bravery! It really brings cheers to my eyes. I love the comment above about it's technical quality - it isn't good, yet this picture, at least for me, epitomizes the power of photography more than any other.

Awesome choice (just too low!).

9:33 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Actually, this was supposed to be #6, but Blogger simply wouldn't let me upload the picture for #7 yesterday. I had already uploaded this picture, so I just decided to switch #6 and #7. And it was fortunate, because a friend subsequently gave me some important additional information about next week's picture (the former #7, now #6).

9:57 AM  
Blogger eolake said...

"And although many demonstrators died in the government's crackdown, it is possible to argue that the Chinese government was being nearly as restrained as the commander of the lead tank."

How so? I know almost nothing about the incident, but what little I heard sounded pretty gruesome.

1:14 PM  
Anonymous John said...

I was under the impression that the Chinese government had recently identified and arrested the man based on the film and still footage, but I could be wrong.

Setting aside the backstory, I love the recurring yellow and green colors in the image.

10:00 PM  
Blogger ilachina said...

Hi Mike,

I've been lurking on your Blog for a while now, and enjoying it tremendously. I've also been a fan of your columns in the British B&W. Most recently, your revelation of your behind-the-scenes "life" - the intensity of your soulful connection to your son - was, to say the least, intensely moving and touching. You are an artist sir, of both external and *internal* worlds!

This seems to be a month for "photography lists"...inspired partly by your own selections, and Brooks Jensens' essay (in the current Lenswork) about "Which photographs would you show to someone who doesn't know photography to illustrate your love of fine art photography?", I've started compiling my own photos and impressions on my Blog. As with all such excercises, the deepest revelations are those that my selectrions have made for *me*.

Keep up the great work (here and other publications)!

11:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was a great film on PBS's Frontline about the "Tank Man." The most chilling part of the story (beyond the fact that U.S Corporations like Yahoo and Google helping the Chinese government censor the web)was when the show's producer showed the picture of "Tank Man" to 4 Beijing University students. None of them knew what the picture was about, nor its context. So much for Mike Otto's "several feet of rocks and never attending school." There is a whole generation of Chinese that do not know about this photo. So MJ, in China,this picture cannot stand alone (it actually can't be viewed, but that's another story). In this case, perhaps a caption explaining it is necessary.

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Charlie Cole said...

Mike, I found your thoughts on man's murderous side and the relationship to massacres thought provoking. the other photographer who shot the Tiananmen Tank shot is Arthur Chang with Reuters. In 1990 I was awarded the World Press Photo of the Year for the photo, which I thought was a mistake, as I have always contended that Stuart Franklin should’ve shared the award with me if they were intent on awarding it for that photo and I told WPP so when they contacted me to announce it. The quality of the shot is not what either Stuart or myself would have liked, but something that all photographers should understand about the situation is that after the initial crackdown, it became almost impossible to be on the streets as a westerner. Martial law had been declared, and on two separate occasions I came under fire while trying to shoot, once no less in a diplomatic compound where David and Peter Turnley and myself had taken up a position over a line of tanks. 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, and I and the other shooters were very privileged to have witnessed it.
Sincerely, Charlie Cole
p.s. I never argued over the hotel bill,
that was Newsweek Hong Kong Bureau Chief Melinda Liu.

5:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting story. It would be good to get hold of Jeff Widener and talk to him about this. Last time I saw him, a few years ago, he was living in Hawaii. I remember he was quite bitter about the fact that others were recognized for the photo but he never really won anything for it (he was nominated for the Pullitzer)

APH

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if anyone actually watched the video footage, there was a soldier coming out of the tank and talk to the person. and the tanks tried many times to go around this person. now ask yourself would you dare do that in your own country when martial law and curfew were declared? would anyone dare to stop the national guards in 1992 LA riot? don't think so. President Jiang was right that this person knows it is people's army and they will try very hard not to hurt the people.

4:05 PM  
Anonymous Charlie Cole said...

Anonymous said "President Jiang was
right that this person knows it is
people's army and they will try very
hard not to hurt the people."

I have often wondered if the young tank
crew and particularly the tank commander
were disciplined for not running over
the lone protestor. I assure you others
were not near as fortunate. That a
single tank crew didn't murder one of
Beijing's residents was in now way
indicative of what I and others
witnessed in those days. I personally
counted 64 persons shot down in the
the early hours of
June 4. I remember well because I
counted everyone of them. I would gladly
show you the photos but your beloved
Public Security Bureau beat me, cattle
prodded me and ripped the film off me,
in their crude attempts to silence any
news of their crimes. Perhaps one day
they will return to me what doesn't
belong to them, or perhaps one day there
will be a government in China that will
have the courage to show the unedited
CCTV footage from all the surveillance
cameras along Changan Avenue and
Tiananmen Square so that the world can
see just what the People's Army really did
that evening. That's an open invitation
to anyone that claims that a massacre
didn't take place, obviously you were
not there or you would never have made
such a statement. If you will send me
an email address I will send you a photo of
the work of the PLA. A young woman shot
down on Changan Avenue not long before
the young man stood down the tanks in
almost the same stretch of street.

Charlie Cole

6:39 AM  
Blogger Mike F said...

I feel a very strong personal connection to, if not so much the photograph (which I'm well aware of and admire), but more the incident itself. Professionally, the aftermath of this incident affected me in many ways too numerous and indirect to go into here (mostly involving immigration processing of Chinese students in the aftermath).

Personally, I'm a good friend of a lady who was there, in the square, as one of the student protesters. Her recollections reflect the confusion of participants "on the ground" in such matters: highly personal and concentrated on immediate incidents rather than the "bigger picture". But some of those immediate incidents were, shall we say, not the kind of PR that the PRC wants in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics. Harrowing, to say the least. And in her case, with both a back-story (her father was "re-educated" during the Cultural Revolution) and an aftermath - her emigration from China.

...Mike

8:31 AM  
Anonymous mwg said...

I tagged along to Beijing last year when my wife went as part of her business program. According to the professor the Party (or his contacts in the Party) regards the Tiananmen square massacre as an unfortunate but necessary step to maintain order while China reforms its economy. The professor was told that the Party thought that it had bought itself a generation with the Tiananmen massacre.

Given recent unrest in China, I think that generation the Party "bought" may be nearing its end. For instance, I've read reports that around 20 people were killed by riot police in Dongshan last December.

Finally, I don't think I'd take the four Beijing University students at face value when they say they hadn't heard about the Tiananmen massacre. They may have been honest. Or they may have simply been unwilling to talk about it on camera.

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone know where I can get a real photo of Charlie Cole's tank man?

Thanks!
escheng%verizon.net

11:49 PM  
Blogger Tha said...

I am looking to gain permission of Charlie Cole's Tank Man photo to print in a book. Does anyone have Charlie Cole's contact info? Does he have a website?Thanks in advance.


Waseem

-------

Waseem Bashar, Graphic Designer

2:39 PM  
Blogger gab said...

please... I have to know who made the film!!!!

thanks

8:28 AM  
Blogger Al J. Venter said...

Greetings guys and gals,

Al Venter calling.

I'm an old pal of Charlie Cole's and am at present on assignment in Africa (no, not in Somalia, tho I've been in that awful hell hole often enough in the past). Right now I want to get hold of Charlie. Anybody point me in the right direction. My e-mail address is termite@pacifier.com.

Charlie features well in my next book of 'war stories' titled 'Barrel of a Gun', which is a sequel to my book 'War Dog' which deals with the modern-day mercerenary. Want to tell him myself...

Salamu

Al J.

4:11 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Al Venter,
I'm sorry, I don't have Charlie Cole's contact info. The comments come in without email addresses attached. Sorry I can't help.

Mike

2:47 PM  

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