17 February 2019
The iconic picture of the Tank Man by Jeff Widener. Photo: AP
The iconic picture of the Tank Man by Jeff Widener. Photo: AP

American photojournalist remembers Tiananmen

If there is one image of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement that is forever seared in the collective memory of the world, it is the picture of that solitary man who stood in front of a column of military tanks in Beijing on June 5, 1989.

All these years after taking that photograph, for which he became a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, Associated Press photojournalist Jeff Widener has been wondering what has happened to that young man who bravely stood on Changan Avenue that morning to block the People’s Liberation Army tanks from rolling into Tiananmen Square.

“I have never had that kind of fear,” Widener told Apple Daily. “I was profoundly impressed by the students and their courage.”

Widener found it unbelievable that the young man, who has become known as the Tank Man, just vanished for 25 years, with no one knowing his whereabouts and fate. His identity remains a mystery, although some say he is Wang Weilin, who was then 19 years old.

Widener’s memory of the scene remained vivid. The man, wearing a white shirt and black trousers and holding a plastic bag, stood directly in the path of the tanks and halted them. The lead tank tried to drive around him, but he repeatedly stepped into the path of the tank. The man even climbed onto the hull of the tank and had a brief conversation with a soldier.

Widener took the picture from the sixth floor balcony of Beijing Hotel. “I was thinking if I should switch to a telephoto lens, fearing I might miss out on the scene. It was a gamble but one that paid off,” he said. “My regret is that I did not manage to get a full frontal image of the guy.”

Widener went back to China in 1995 and 2009, sentimental journeys which he took to visit old friends and witness the rapid changes in the country and its much-improved economy.

While the Chinese people looked happy in general, there was something lacking, freedom, he said.

Meanwhile, dissident and student leader Shen Tong, who is now living in the United States with his mother, is working on a film centered on the tank man.

The June 4 movement is not just about grievances, it is about the sublimation of the human spirit, Shen said.

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