My Story: Whoa! What can you say? You know how big a tank is, there’s one on display somewhere within a hundred miles or so no matter where you live. Maybe it’s a Sherman tank at an American war memorial, maybe it’s a T-34 somewhere in Eastern Europe — these are smaller than the one in Beijing in 1989. Even so, walk around and stand in front of that thing and imagine it’s coming at you, how long before you step aside? And this guy stepped back in front of the tank when it tried to get around him! Then he climbed up on top of it and said to the driver: “Why are you here? My city is in chaos because of you.” Man, what can you say?
The Facts: Charlie Cole was shooting from his hotel room when the tanks rolled into Tienanmen Square. He knew right away he had a good picture but was afraid the authorities would confiscate it. He hid the exposed roll in the bathroom and loaded the camera with blank film. He had another camera with shots of the wounded on it but he had no film left to substitute and he thought the authorities would be suspicious of empty cameras. Sure enough, the security police came into his room about fifteen minutes after the shot was taken. They stripped the film from his cameras and lectured him on taking pictures while the city was under martial law. They left and Cole recovered the film from his toilet. His shots of the wounded were gone (but you can see plenty here and shots of corpses, too, if you need to).
Cole was not the only photographer to shoot this scene, there were at least four others. Here’s a shot by Stuart Franklin:
How many tanks does it take to put down a student demonstration anyway? Here’s another shot from ground level by Terril Jones, notice the guys fleeing:
There’s some video of this episode, too. People (army? security police? maybe friends?) dragged the man away. An American network tried to track him down years later but to no avail. That makes the song by Cui Jian adopted as a student protest anthem, “Nothing to My Name”, even more appropriate.