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Volume 41, No. 1
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Tank Man
Terril Jones's photo of the Tiananmen "Tank Man" offers a new view of history. But why hold onto it for two decades?

By Terril Jones '80

SOMETIMES WE DO THINGS—or don’t do things—that we can’t easily explain. This summer I’ve been mulling over how I sat on, without publishing or publicizing, a remarkable photograph for two decades … a picture I took 20 years ago that is an alternate viewpoint of an iconic image that captivated much of the world.

I only shared my photo with a handful of friends until I agreed to its publication this summer in The New York Times online, generating media buzz and strong emotions. How did the picture stay under wraps for so long? This is the first time that I have recounted the full story.

I took the photo on June 5, 1989, as a reporter for The Associated Press covering the Tiananmen Square protests and military crackdown on protesters in Beijing. It’s a shot of the man who had the famous confrontation with the line of Chinese army tanks, a different angle of the well-known image that we’ve all seen of Man vs. Tank. That photo—actually photos, since the same scene was captured by four different photographers from essentially the same location atop the Beijing Hotel—has become a symbol around the world of democracy movements, people power and photojournalism itself.

I was standing at the front of the Beijing Hotel around lunchtime when I heard shots emanating from the direction of the square a couple of hundred meters to the west. People were running east toward me. I could hear the grinding motors of tanks not far down the road and more shots coming from that direction. I raised my Nikon F-801 SLR camera and squeezed off a single shot of a column of tanks I could see approaching from the right, then I ducked down a side street and into an entrance to the Beijing Hotel where I was staying.

I made my way up to Room 1131 and took another picture or two from the balcony. I remember being obsessed with the thought that authorities would break into my room to seize my film, just as an agent from the Gonganju (Public Security Bureau) and some uniformed police had done in the lobby of the Beijing Hotel on a previous night, confiscating a two-hour videotape—two hours!—of events I had taken over the last days leading up to the crackdown. I quickly hid my cameras and film in an air vent in the ceiling of the bathroom as I had been doing for a few days. I later learned that other photographers had also hidden film in their hotel rooms—in a toilet tank, for instance.

Later that day I took my equipment and film to AP’s Beijing bureau where, on a chaotic news day, the film was developed and a photo editor selected one or two frames from my rolls to send out on the wire. Earlier that day the bureau had transmitted AP’s striking bird’s-eye image of the man stopping the tank, and as reaction to that photo and the day’s events swirled around us, the rest of my negatives were returned to me.

It was only some time after I returned to my home in Tokyo, in mid-July, that I printed out select copies of the photos, and even later—a month? Six months? Longer?—that I printed out full-size, 8-by-10-inch copies of certain frames. At some point— I honestly cannot remember when—I realized that one of my photos had captured a different angle of that signature confrontation, well before the tanks reached the defiant man.

I remember being mesmerized but at the same time disappointed, thinking it wasn’t as dramatic as the famous photos already known to the rest of the world. Even though there was terror and confusion expressed in the faces of people fleeing, the man himself seemed so small, so easily missed. There is also a bicyclist who seems jarringly nonchalant—did I just catch him at a moment with his head up? Or when he was standing to push down hard on a pedal? Or was he a member of the security apparatus and knew he didn’t have to worry about getting arrested?

I probably thought to myself those 19 or 20 years ago that the world had already seen the better view of this incident and of this man, and that I had missed the moment. I packed the photos away and carried them with me through a series of moves over the years—from Japan to France to New York City to Michigan to San Francisco to Virginia.

Last year I spent six months at Ohio State University on a Kiplinger Fellowship studying digital media recording, editing and presentation techniques. There I’d started a multimedia made-for-online documentary on Chinese youth, using images I took covering the protests in 1989 and some I took at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

But I was finding it difficult placing my project with a news organization’s Website. On June 4, The New York Times’ new photography blog called Lens published the previously known photos of the Man vs. Tank, along with the stories of the four photographers who took them. A news photographer friend who knew of my picture emailed me, asking, “Shouldn’t you be among them too?”

I contacted The Times, showed them the photo and was bowled over by the response. They were “speechless” and keen on being the first to carry the picture. “You’ll forever be known as the Fifth Photographer,” I was told … how much more convincing did I need?

The photo was published online (http://xrl.us/bevf5k) and viewer reaction was swift, voluminous and, for me, overwhelmingly humbling. Comments said the photo was “unbelievable,” “breathtaking” and “dripping with emotion.” Several said they felt goose bumps or had tears in their eyes when they saw it.

Many offered their own interpretations, stating for instance that the photo “paints a picture of an even steeper measure of resolve within the man confronting the tank,” or is “Proof positive, if it has ever been needed, that the study of all history, everywhere must be free, open to new information and new perspectives as new facts come to light.” One reader expressed thanks for “a great service to history,” and another said, “Without a doubt I am moved to be a better person.”

That’s heady stuff. In 28 years of journalism, I’ve never gotten such emotional responses to anything I’ve written. I was floored by the passionate feedback, and also by how the media and networking of today accelerated reaction in ways that didn’t exist when the photo was taken. Friends emailed appreciation. Dozens of sites across the blogosphere linked to the photo, which also got me written into Wikipedia’s “Tank Man” entry. Strangers who liked the picture friended me on Facebook.

All this has led me to reassess what the photo tells us. I saw that the still-unidentified man clearly premeditated his stand well before the tanks were upon him; he didn’t dart out for the confrontation moments before. He seems calm and prepared—could he have been mentally unstable as some have suggested? He appears to be abandoned by those running for cover, yet he also seems to be clearing a path for them to do so.

I’ve also realized how strongly that image continues to resonate with people, underscoring the importance of a free—and well-staffed—press corps around the world. The visceral responses that the photo has evoked make me wish I had come forward with it publicly much sooner.

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