Pictures I Like: Tankman, Charlie Cole, 1989

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:

[photo removed at Franklin’s request]

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:

(credit: Terril Jones, AP)

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.

4 comments on “Pictures I Like: Tankman, Charlie Cole, 1989

  1. nursemyra says:

    I read the link to “maybe friends”. and also watched the video. despite those who say he just did it out of frustration, i still feel it was an incredibly brave thing to do

  2. Stephen says:

    Connected to your blog from a Wikipedia citation to the Stuart Franklin wide angle shot. It’s even more brave when you consider this was the day AFTER the massacre. Sometimes it’s a fine line between bravery and foolhardy, reckless disregard for your own safety. However you want to spin it, the world would be a better place if there were more people like him in it.

    Also, I always kind of assumed that they wanted to avoid harming him because they assumed that the world was probably watching (they were right) but I am not sure if that’s what the tank commander was thinking or not. I also think it’s interesting that on an 8-lane road, these tanks are committed to a single-file line. There is certainly no physical reason why one person should be able to stop a tank, let alone an entire division of tanks, but there are plenty of psychological reasons for it. So interesting. I think there’s no end of things we can learn from incidents like this besides the obvious “courage” and “power of one” themes.

  3. […] early last year, I got an e-mail from Stuart Franklin about a photo that was reproduced in the post Pictures I Like: Tankman. Franklin was somewhat exercised that I had used this photo not simply because it was copyright […]

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