Stuart Franklin, © Magnum Photos
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 JOHNSTONFEATURED 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.