Page last updated at 18:07 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 19:07 UK

Tiananmen figures: 'Tank man' photographer


Photographer Jeff Widener describes how he captured the iconic 'tank man' image

On the morning of 5 June 1989, a lone Chinese protester blocked a column of tanks in Beijing.

The picture of "tank man" has become the enduring image of the Tiananmen massacre, and one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th Century.

Jeff Widener was one of four photographers who captured the moment as he covered the protests for the US newswire the Associated Press.

'Tank man' picture
No-one knows for sure what happened to "tank man"

"When I look at this picture I think of how close I came to not getting it," said Mr Widener.

Wrong shutter speed

Early on 4 June tanks started clearing out Tiananmen Square. It was a dangerous time to be in central Beijing.

While taking pictures of protesters hurling sticks and stones at a burning tank, a stray brick struck Mr Widener. He was saved by the camera held in front of his face.

"I was at the point where I just wanted to get out. I wanted to go home," he said.

Photographer Jeff Widener
Suddenly this man walks out with his shopping bags - my first instinct was 'He's going to mess up my composition'
Jeff Widener

Despite suffering from concussion, Mr Widener managed to sneak into the Beijing Hotel, where he had a good view of Tiananmen Square.

He stayed there until the morning of 5 June, when the Chinese military had taken control of the city. Mr Widener heard tanks rumbling down the street.

"Suddenly this man walks out with his shopping bags. My first instinct was, 'He's going to mess up my composition'."

He took three shots before realising that his camera was on the wrong shutter speed.

But by the time he solved the problem, the protester had already been dragged off the street.

"I thought I'd lost the picture," said Mr Widener.

20 years on: Tiananmen memories

He said an American student at the time was instrumental in helping him smuggle the undeveloped roll of film past the huge security presence in the hotel lobby, and back to the Associated Press office to be sent around the world.

"Without his help, my picture would have never made it out."

Mr Widener believes the American student's name is either Kirk or Kurt - but he does not know for sure.

"I hope someday soon I can find him so I can thank him personally."

Mr Widener's photograph got him nominated as a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1990.

Since then he has covered major stories in more than 100 countries and currently works as a photographer in Honolulu, Hawaii.

No-one knows for sure what happened to "tank man".

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific