Sound and vision blog

05 June 2019

Stuart Franklin remembers photographing Tank Man in Tiananmen Square

30 years ago this week the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, China ended when the People’s Liberation Army fired on the student-led demonstrators. While the protests of 1989 took place across the whole of mainland China, it is the events in Beijing that dominated international coverage. The iconic photo of ‘Tank Man’ has come to stand as the defining image of the movement.

Tank Man stands in front of a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square

Wide shot of Tank Man by Stuart Franklin (Source: Wikipedia)

In this classic photograph an unknown man holds two shopping bags and stands alone against a line of tanks. Captured by five different photographers, the most widely republished version was taken by Stuart Franklin of Magnum Photos. Stuart was interviewed by Shirley Read for an Oral History of British Photography in 2000 and he described how he took the photograph and how he got it out of China:

"So I hid the film in a box of tea" (C459/129/12)

In the interview Stuart considers what makes his photo of Tank Man different from the other four that were taken. Unlike the others, his shot includes smoke coming out of the fourth tank indicating it was about to move and adds “tension” to the image. Surprisingly, and despite the impact and longevity of the photograph, Stuart describes it as “feeble” and “pathetic” compared to Josef Koudelka’s photographs of Prague in 1968:

"It wasn't a very satisfying image to be taking" (C459/129/12)

Although Stuart is critical of his own photo he recognises its impact and discusses why it became so iconic:

"... a symbolic edge that it wouldn't otherwise have had" (C459/129/12)

Stuart speaks eloquently about how an image is defined as much by its dissemination as by its quality. So while he thinks he took better photographs of the protests, including those outside of Beijing, he is aware that they will never have the importance of Tank Man.

The identity of the protester himself has never been discovered, nor is it known what happened to him after the photo was taken. Yet through photographs such as Stuart’s he is as emblematic of the protests now as he was 30 years ago.

The complete interview with Stuart Franklin can be listened to online by those in Higher and Further Education institutions. For more information on an Oral History of British Photography see the collection guide to Oral histories of visual arts and crafts.