When I was 14-years old, I used to snatch my father's Topcon Auto 100 camera out of a living room drawer and smuggle it to school every day and though my parents knew about it, they never said anything. Dad eventually gifted me the camera when I graduated from junior high school and it led me on a lifetime journey as a photographer. My fascination with cameras grew by leaps and bounds and while visiting the library one day, I checked out a photography book which highlighted several iconic images like John Filo's Kent State shootings, Nick Ut's Napalm girl, the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, Eddie Adams famous Vietnam War image, Joe Rosenthal's flag raising at Iwo Jima and a picture of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon. Then something weird happened. A strange feeling of urgency overcame me as if my blood pressure increased or something. It was almost as if the photographs I was viewing would have something to do with my life. Call it a sixth sense or premonition, I never forgot the moment.
In 1989 I was having lunch at a girly bar in Bangkok's Pat Pong district near The Associated Press office where I worked as the Southeast Asia Picture Editor. Though the strippers were dangerous, the food was delicious and as I watched the small TV screen behind the darkened counter, the news channel flashed images of thousands of pro-democracy protesters marching near Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Though China was outside my territory, the story had been building over several days and I knew it was only a matter of time before New York headquarters would fly me in.
One of the things I learned while working at United Press International in the 1980's was to always have a visa in your passport for surrounding hot-spots. With this philosophy I headed to the Chinese consulate and applied for a journalist visa. Returning the following day, I was annoyed having to wait in a long line, but the unpleasantness was short lived when an official in a black suit motioned me to the front counter. “Mr. Widener—it would not be convenient for you to visit the Peoples Republic right now”. Miffed, I took back my passport and headed to a nearby travel agency.
The consulate's rejection came as no surprise, but I wanted a piece of the story, so I got the approval from my local bureau chief to fly to Hong Kong and apply for a Chinese tourist visa. Because my passport had previous journalist stamps in it, I had to get a clean one and the only way to do that was to report it lost.
The US consulate woman in Hong Kong was not amused. Apparently there had been a rash of lost passports from journalists and after an uncomfortable silence, she cocked her head and abruptly handed over the document. I took the new passport to a small travel agency run by a Malaysian family and purchased a short tour package tour to China. This allowed me to avoid the Chinese consulate directly, since the agency handled the formalities for their customers. The owner asked if I was sure I wanted to holiday in Beijing at such an unpleasant time and I answered enthusiastically “Sure—love it—can't wait”. I had no idea if the ploy would work. Though I was happy that the tourist visa was approved, I felt a little concerned at side-stepping the Beijing government's earlier rejection and worried it could get me in trouble.
As expected the order came down from New York to help with the Tiananmen story. It was good news, except for one small problem. They wanted me to take a complete portable darkroom, boxes of photographic supplies and chemicals and this included my massive Nikon 600mm f4.0 telephoto lens. If that did not sound alarm bells at customs … nothing would.
I had an unsettled feeling, as my plane approached the Beijing airport. How was I supposed to make it past customs with a rolling camera store? I loaded my baggage, supplies and camera gear into two trolleys and slowly pushed my way through the long line of passengers. My heart started pounding and I began to wonder how many situations like this shortened one's life. Just when it was my turn, a loud noise and scuffle rang out several counters down to my left. In disbelief, I saw an explosion of feathers everywhere. My steely-eyed customs agent sprinted towards an old lady, who was in a tug of war with several other agents while desperately clutching a live chicken. I quickly pushed my cart through the sliding doors and to a waiting taxi.
It turned out that the unsettled feeling on the plane was the start of a bad case of the flu, which would dog me for the remainder of the story and I soon began coughing incessantly. The city's heavy air pollution did not help. When I arrived at the AP Beijing office, Mark Avery was acting photo bureau chief and Chinese American photographer Liu Heung Shing had arrived from New Delhi a few days earlier.
My morning routine was to arrive at the Tiananmen Square at sunrise and photograph the protesters and hand full of hunger strikers. There was almost a carnival atmosphere as thousands of people freely wandered the massive square and pretty much did whatever they wanted. There was a security ring that encircled one of the main statues with the most heavily guarded section being at the top where the anti-government printing presses worked overtime. Looking back, I am not even sure if most of the people understood what democracy was but they liked whatever was happening and wanted more of it.
One of the most memorable things I witnessed was the sun rising behind a 33-ft tall replica of the Statue of Liberty which protesters called the “Goddess Democracy”. It faced off directly against the giant portrait of Mao Tse-Tung at the Forbidden City which was across the Chang-an Boulevard. The symbolic clash between Democracy and Communism was striking and a huge embarrassment to the government.
After a week of coverage, the crowds began to swell to over 100,000 people and the jostling between People's Liberation Army soldiers and the protesters had become heated. Our Asia photo editor had been in Beijing since the arrival of Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and he decided to return to Tokyo … the day before the government crackdown. Since the Beijing photo operation was left with only three photographers, straws were drawn to decide who would work the first night shift. I was the lucky draw and headed towards the Square with AP reporter Dan Biers.
The night was calm as Dan and I peddled our bicycles down the Chang'an Boulevard. I decided to travel light and stay inconspicuous so I only carried a single Nikon F3 titanium camera, two wide-angle lenses and a Vivitar 283 flash which was all stashed in my Levi jacket. Though the nights had been relatively peaceful, I told Dan that I had a bad feeling about that night. As we neared the Square, people started pulling large steel barricades from the middle and sides of the street to block the advance of any potential military vehicles. I got off the bicycle and started photographing as the protesters moved silently in the night. A toothless old man with a long beard and heavy coat approached me with a crazy laugh. He eagerly opened his jacket and stashed in his belt was a large hatchet dripping with blood as if it was a proud trophy fish. This was not a positive experience and I nodded to the man with a weak smile and quickly left the area.
Biers and I reached a side street off the Great Hall of The People and we soon spotted bright white flashes in the distance. Suddenly, we heard the sound of crashing metal on the main boulevard and people started screaming and running towards us. An armored personnel carrier with a large caliber machine gun pointing from the front came tearing around the corner so fast that orange sparks flew off the treads. Dan and I dropped our bicycles and I dived into some ivy on the side of the road. As it passed by with the rock throwing protesters in hot pursuit, I reluctantly picked myself up and followed suit at a distance. I was terrified like never before and all I wanted was to run in the opposite direction as fast as possible. The mob had cornered the APC at the locked gates of the Great Hall and they climbed on top shouting and raising hell. After I managed several pictures, I noticed my flash was running low on battery power and my film suply was almost exhausted. I was faced with a big dilemma. Should I head back to the AP office for film and batteries or should I stay with what little film and flash power I had? Since I saw no other press photographers, I decided to race back to the office and make the US deadlines with what I had.
My coughing got worse and my head was throbbing from a severe headache. I needed antibiotics, but there was no time to see a doctor. As I turned onto the Chang'an Boulevard, another APC that was completely engulfed in flames lurched and sputtered towards me. Protesters had shoved steel objects in the treads to slow it down and the soldiers were roasting alive inside. I fumbled for my 35-70mm zoom lens, but it was missing and probably lost in the ivy. All that was remaining was a very wide 24mm lens which meant I had to get very close to everything. To capture the unfolding event, I had no choice but to stand directly in front of the armed APC. I was fully aware that some protesters had overtaken military buses and displayed captured AK-47 assault rifles a few days earlier so I had no idea whether the soldiers inside would think I was shooting at them and return gunfire. Though I was scared to death, my adrenaline took control of my body and the impulse to get the picture became so powerful that I overruled sanity and flashed a picture.
I quickly side-stepped the burning APC and noticed that my flash was almost without power. A small crowd had formed nearby and as I tried to see what it was, my camera was yanked from around my neck and the mob started screaming at me! For an instant, I felt as if I would be shred to pieces by the mob. I yanked my passport out of my jacket and held it high over my head thinking it would either save me or get me killed. I shouted “American … American!” A leader of the pack came over calmed the crowd. The man looked at my passport and then pointed to a dead soldier lying curled up on the ground where the small crowd had earlier gathered. “You photo … you show world!” he yelled.
I crouched next to the lifeless body and flashed a picture. As I started to get up, I was pushed back down and ordered to take more pictures but, I had no way of explaining to the crowd that my flash was taking a full sixty seconds to recharge. Then, something excited the crowd and I managed to crawl between the legs of the protesters to see a man rolling around on the ground on fire. Another protester was trying to extinguish the flames with his shirt. Though I missed the moment, I could not have made the shot anyway, as my flash was almost dead. I stared down at my camera and waited for the orange ready light to flash as the world fell apart around me. It was like a sick joke and I could just imagine Robert Capa and Larry Burroughs chuckling down from heaven over a couple of cold beers. I was on one of the biggest stories of the 20th century and all I could make was a single picture every minute.
At the exact second I raised the camera to my eye, a terrific blow struck me in the face, snapping my head back. The world was spinning with stars like a Disney cartoon character. I looked down at my completely destroyed blood-spattered camera. A protester's stray chunk of asphalt had ripped off the top of my Nikon F3 titanium camera along with the Vivitar 283 flash and 24mm lens. The powerful impact also shattered the mirror and warped the shutter curtain. I had no idea how bad my injuries were and I touched my head to see if my skull was cracked open. Though I miraculously survived with only a bloody nose, I had suffered a serious head injury. The special reinforced titanium Nikon F3 was designed for heavy abuse by news photographers and it absorbed the blow sparing my life. Had I raised the camera a millisecond too late, I surely would have been killed instantly.
Seconds later, the back of the burning armored car opened and a soldier jumped out with his arms raised to surrender. I can still remember how neatly pressed his uniform was. The crowd slowly moved in with steel pipes, rocks and assorted weapons. As I looked at the terror in his eyes, two thoughts crossed simultaneously. I was going to lose the Pulitzer Prize and I should feel ashamed for thinking such thoughts as surely the man would be killed. There was nothing I could do to help him in the chaos. I began asking people around me if they had a flash. For starters, they had no idea what I was saying and more importantly, I had no camera to put it on. As the shock began to wear off, I grabbed a stray bicycle off the littered ground and headed for the AP office.
As I pedaled in a daze past the Tiananmen Square with my smashed camera hanging around my neck, I wondered why red fireworks were on display? Then something small struck my cheek and things finally began to sink in. It wasn't fireworks but rather tracers from large caliber machine gun fire arching over the Tiananmen Square and a tiny speck of asphalt had struck my face from a stray round. Though the burning buses helped illuminate the flying rocks, I worried about vehicles exploding and gunfire. The journey was slowed because I had to lift the bicycle over an obstacle course of scattered barricades. The whole scene reminded me of a scene from the movie Apocalypse Now.
When I finally reached the AP office, Mark Avery was transmitting pictures which he had made of a man who was crushed to death by a tank. He could see I was injured and told me to give him my camera and not go back outside because the government was killing people. Mark had to pry my film out of the camera in the darkroom with pliers. As I sat trembling in the office, I made one of the most difficult decisions of my career. As a news photographer, I wanted to return to the streets, but as a human being, I was too injured, scared and exhausted to return. I was disappointed and ashamed, but the decision probably saved my life because I know I would have gone to the front line and using a flash at night would have been suicidal.
Back in my hotel room, I collapsed on the bed and ordered a cheeseburger from room service. I turned on the television and was shocked that CNN showed live footage of burning vehicles with crackling gunfire near the same spot I had just left. I was dumbfounded that the government had not cut the live feed to western news outlets. I fell asleep on the bed next to the window, but was soon awakened by the sound of gunfire. The smell of diesel fuel filled the air as tanks shook the hotel to the sound of clanging treads. It was an all night ballet of madness with me running from bed to the bathroom which had a protective wall. Sometimes a single vehicle would race down the street randomly firing weapons in the air. My mental and physical health was rapidly heading south.
The next afternoon I grabbed a bottle of aspirin and headed to breakfast. The large plate glass window of the Jianguo hotel restaurant was shattered with bullet holes. Outside was a rock-littered street with smashed bicycles, barricades and burnt out buses. A few people circled the area with their bicycles as if they were in a daze. With the street clear of military vehicles, I flagged a cyclo driver and headed to the AP office.
Liu Heung Shing had been busy on the streets all day and managed to get some great images while I was hiding in the hotel bathroom. He handed me a message from the New York desk which, said “We don't want anyone to take any unnecessary risks, but if someone could please photograph the occupied Tienanmen Square, we would appreciate it”. This is not what I wanted to hear. Mark shrugged his shoulders and said he had to edit and Liu, being Chinese, feared being mistaken as a government spy. This left only me to figure out how to get to the Beijing Hotel which had the closest vantage point of the occupied Square. Rumors had been circulating that Chinese security police were using electric cattle prods on journalist and confiscating their notebooks and cameras.
Since I had lost some of my equipment the previous night, I grabbed a single chrome Nikon FE2 camera body and took the strap off so it would fit unseen in my back pocket. It was very small compared to most professional film cameras and perfect for a stealth job. I had no auto focus nor motor-drive so I had to hand crank every image that day and hope the only camera I carried did not fail. I selected another Nikon 35-70mm lens from the office locker and slipped it in my right Levi jacket pocket. A Nikon 400mm ED IF telephoto lens with an attached TC-301 teleconverter was stashed in my left inner coat pocket. This combination gave me an angle of coverage from 35mm to 800mm. A few rolls of film were stuffed in my shorts. To the casual soldier, I was just a scared tourist.
I walked my bicycle out of the tranquil diplomatic compound and past an armed police guard at the entrance. The occasional pop of distant gunfire could be heard echoing in the back alleys. Other than that, the battle scarred street was quiet. I slowly peddled the bike down the Chang'an Boulevard towards my intended destination.
Just as I was starting to feel somewhat safe, four parked tanks guarding a major overpass intersection on the Chang'an Boulevard appeared over the horizon. Each turret hatch held a soldier manning a large caliber machine gun. I followed the other cyclist under and parallel to the overpass and tried to look as nonchalant as a stocky white guy in western jeans could look. The situation was almost comical. My fear was overwhelming. The last couple of days had just been too much for me. As I rode under the tanks, I said to myself “I can't f... ing believe I am doing this”. My mind then drifted to a past pleasant experience when I was 15 and holding a shiny new Nikon F2 camera in my hands. It was a lovely Spring day and I was riding my bicycle to Chatsworth Park in Southern California's San Fernando Valley where I often took pictures. It was like I was transported in a time warp and China was a million miles away. Then before I knew it, I was back on a littered street and safely past the tanks. This is a true story and I sincerely believe my brain intercepted that brief terrifying moment as a measure of self preservation. The human body has an amazing ability to deal with the crisis.
But I was not out of the woods yet. As I approached the Beijing Hotel, I could see several security policemen in white coats near the entrance. I slowly approached and locked my bicycle at a metal rack. I knew they were probably going to arrest me, but then in the darkened shadows of the lobby, I spotted a young man who wore a dirty Rambo T-shirt, shorts and sandals. It was Kirk Martsen, an American college exchange student who was staying with a Los Angeles Times reporter. I confidently walked past the security and loudly said to Kirk “Hey Joe, where you been?, I have been looking all over for you”. Then I whispered “I'm from AP, can I come up to your room?”. Kirk immediately pointed to the elevator and I could see the approaching plainclothes police turn and leave thinking I was a guest in the hotel. Once in the dark elevator, Kirk shared a hair raising story that only a few minutes before I arrived, a truck load of soldiers shot two men standing in the entrance of the hotel. Kirk dived for cover behind a taxi and narrowly escaping two rounds that whizzed by him. The groaning men who lay in a pool of blood were dragged inside by hotel staff.
When I arrived in Kirk's room, I explained my mission to get a photograph of the occupied Tiananmen Square. He explained a way to access the roof where there was a clear vantage point of the occupied Square. We both waited at the elevator but were stopped by one of the security men who were stationed on each floor. We returned to the room and tried to think of another option. Outside on the street we heard a tank coming and we both headed for the balcony which had a single bullet hole in the wall. The tank rammed a burned out bus in the middle of the street and I crouched behind a metal railing that offered some minor protection. After making several images, we made another attempt to get to the roof.
Our security man was between floors arguing with a colleague so we got inside the elevator and headed for the roof. Once there, I instructed Kirk to hide my film in his underwear because I figured if we were caught, they would probably check me first since I had a camera and Kirk was only wearing a T-shirt and shorts. To my surprise, a young western couple was sitting on the edge of the roof with their legs dangling. I told them it was unsafe because a sniper could pick them off and they also brought attention to Kirk and me. The two ignored us and kept swinging their legs. In the hazy distance, I could see dozens of tanks and support vehicles, but the scene was too far away even for a 400mm lens. I would need the maximum telephoto reach possible and thankfully I had the teleconverter which doubled my 400mm lens to an 800mm focal length. To reduce vibration, I set the self timer to release the shutter and I placed the camera on my bunched Levi Jacket. After taking a few images, I gave the roll of Fuji 800 ISO film to Kirk and we quickly exited the roof.
Housekeeping kept unlocking our door unannounced and scanning the room with their eyes, but I had hidden my camera equipment out of sight behind the bed. After complaining to the hotel staff, the sound of a tinkling bell broke the silence in the street below. A man was furiously pedaling a flatbed cyclo with a white bloody sheet covering a woman. I never ceased to be awed by the courage of ordinary citizens risking dangerous rescues that immediately followed the massacre. Press reports had claimed hundreds or thousands of people had died during the military crackdown.
Before I knew it, I was again almost out of film. This had been a chronic problem because I was limited to what I could hide in my pockets. Kirk offered to help, so while he went searching, I crashed on the bed and took a nap. Around two hours later, Kirk returned and handed me one roll Fuji 100 ISO color negative film, which he was lucky to wrangle from a reluctant hotel guest. Though disappointed at the meager find, that single roll of film changed my life.
The sounds of diesel engines woke me from a sound sleep and I jumped up groggy and grabbed my camera and the 400mm lens. I went out to the balcony and crouched behind the metal railing. There was a long line of tanks approaching from the Square and I thought it might be a nice compression shot. Then suddenly a man in a white long sleeved shirt with two shopping bags, walked into the middle of the Chang'an Boulevard directly in front of the tanks. I complained to Kirk and said “This guy is going to screw up my composition”. Kirk yelled “They are going to kill him!” My head was still in a daze so compared to what I had witnessed over the previous day, a guy standing in front of a row of tanks seemed normal. The unfolding drama was very far away. I waited for the instant the man would be shot or run over. But nothing happened. He unbelievably crawled up on the tank and I looked back at the bed where my teleconver was. I had to make a quick decision as to whether to risk getting a closer, clearer image or possibly miss a photo completely. I made one of the biggest gambles in my life and dived for the bed. I grabbed the teleconverter, attached it to the 400mm lens which now made it an 800mm focal length, eyeballed the light and opened the aperture ring for an estimated exposure of 1/250 of a second at F11. It was a rather slow shutter speed for such a powerful telephoto lens but, I felt I could manage it. Since the next hotel room wall jutted out, I was partially blocked so I had to risk exposing myself to gunfire by leaning over the balcony and shooting around the wall. The man jumped off the tank and made one last stand. I snapped an image, then a second, then a third. In shock, I noticed the automatic shutter speed needle was pointing at between 1/30 and 1/60 of a second and not 1/250. Before I could figure out what happened, the lone man was carried off by bystanders and was never seen again.
Dumbfounded, I flopped on a sofa chair near the balcony door and swore silently. Kirk excitedly asked me “Did you get it … did you get it?” I shook my head and said I didn't think so”. The injury to my head had clouded my judgment and slowed my thinking process. At least that's what I tried to tell myself. The reality was, I screwed up. Since I can judge a light reading by sight, I estimated my exposure for 800 ISO film speed which I normally used, but I had forgotten that I had correctly set the camera setting for 100 ISO which lowered my shutter speed by three stops. Though I knew it would be impossible to expect a sharp image at such a low shutter speed, my sixth sense suggested that perhaps one image might be OK. I can't explain it except to say that after so many years taking pictures, your camera becomes part of your being and it's as if you can feel the camera's mechanics, vibrations or whatever. Or maybe it was just my body signaling false hope so I did not become sicker. The answer would come later that day but first, my film had to make it back to the AP office. I asked Kirk to sit down.
Because Kirk hadn't had time to shower and he wore a grungy T-shirt, shorts and sandals, I figured he would have a better chance making it past the security goons guarding the front door. I asked Kirk if he was willing to go to the AP office at the diplomatic compound and hand over my film to AP and return with more supplies. It was an extremely dangerous request, but he bravely accepted and proceeded to place my film canisters into a plastic bag which he then stuffed into his underwear. After he left the room, I headed out the balcony which was almost directly over the front entrance. I could see four plainclothes police standing around laughing and smoking cigarettes. My heart was pounding as Kirk walked right past the men and I prayed that no rolls of film dropped on the ground in front of them. Kirk grabbed a strangers bicycle and awkwardly peddled away as best he could with a bag full of film in his crotch.
There is nothing more unsettling for a photojournalist than being caught without film on a major breaking story or not knowing whether an extremely important bag of film arrives at an editor's desk. Because the secret police were monitoring the room phones, I had to avoid unnecessary conversations. After five-hours of nervously waiting, I called the AP Beijing office and Liu Heung Shing answered the phone. “Jeff, what shutter speed were you using?”. My heart sank. “Well, it was OK and we used it, but it wasn't very sharp”.
Kirk managed to make it back safely later in the afternoon and told me that he could not find the AP office so he went to the American embassy. He told the guard, he had very important pictures of Tiananmn Square, which needed to get to the Associated Press office and transmitted to the rest of the world. An official immediately came outside and took the bag of film and fortunately delivered the film to the AP office which was very nearby. Kirk had avoided soldiers by staying off the main boulevard. The journey was extremely hazardous and many streets were impassable because of burned vehicles, barricades and debris. Because he was unable to bring more film, I would have to return to the office the next day.
In the late evening hours, the sound of sporadic gunfire was heard all over the city. There were many white vans driving around the streets searching for people. During one incident, plainclothes police jumped out of a sliding door, grabbed a civilian and then sped off. Kirk's girlfriend had arrived and there were a few other people in the room. We all shared the night together as soldiers carried out martial law. I never saw Kirk again after that night and felt badly that I never had the chance to properly thank him for his brave deed.
When I arrived at the AP office the next day, Liu came up to me and joked “Oh you have some very bad messages from New York”. I answered “what in the hell did I do wrong now”? Liu then added “You are probably going to win the f … ing Pulitzer”. On the clipboard were messages of congratulations from bureaus all over the world. London said I was fronting all major UK newspapers half pages. The picture which would become known as “Tank Man” was on the front page of the International Herald Tribune, New York Times, USA Today and would later end up on the cover of Time Magazine and appear two pages in Life Magazine. The picture had become an overnight sensation. I looked at the transmission print and though the image was not very sharp, it was good enough to end up in almost every newspaper in the world that day.
Nobody knows what happened to the “Tank Man” and in fact, no one knows what happened to the tank crew that stopped for the man. Or what happened to the tank crew behind or any of their family members or witnesses or the bystanders who hurried the lone man off the streets. It's as if the entire situation disappeared into the Twilight Zone. There are many theories about what happened to Tank Man but the sad truth is, none of us may ever know his fate. But in some ways, he is like the Unknown Soldier and he will always be remembered as a brave symbol of freedom and democracy.
Though I knew that my image was inspiring, the impact of what I had accomplished did not sink in until ten years later when I spotted a headline on America On Line which said “The Top Ten Most Memorable Photographs Of All Time”. There were all the familiar black and white images I had seen in the Time Life book as a kid 29-years earlier. Then, a familiar color image appeared of a lone man confronting a column of tanks in China.
In 2009 I was sitting at my home computer in Honolulu, Hawaii where I worked on a local newspaper. I heard the familiar “You have mail” from AOL and when I opened the message, this is what it said:
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I was the guy who gave you the film from my camera. You used the bathroom as a dark room in the Beijing Hotel and after you took the photo, I took the film in my underwear by bike to the US embassy. I was just informed by my college buddy about you. I recently moved back to the US after 15 years in Taiwan and I will be releasing an album of my songs shortly. My phone here in Connecticut is --- I would love to hear from you and catch up on all these years. How time flies, ay?