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Charlie Cole on Tiananmen

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Exclusive: Iconic Photos corresponds with Mr. Charlie Cole, the award-winning photographer of the Tiananmen Square photos. 

If you had been a longtime follower of this blog, you would know that Iconic Photos had repeatedly featured Tiananmen Square massacres. One photographer of that fateful event featured in IP previously was Mr. Charlie Cole, then working for Newsweek. He had first contacted me to correct something I wrote (those things have been happening alarmingly of late), and I sent him back an email with my questions and curiosities. Here are his responses.

In my previous posts, I have wrongly noted that Stuart Franklin left out of consideration for awards because he was working independently for Magnum. Mr. Cole corrects me:

Your comment that Stuart was left out of the World Press awards doesn’t really hold water since he was working for Time Magazine at the time of the photo, and one of Time’s great contributors was Howard Chapnick, owner of Black Star Photo Agency, who happened to be chairing the World Press Jury that year. In general the World Press staff and juries have always held Magnum in the highest regard. 

A third photographer, Jeff Widener of AP won the Pulitzer for the Tiananmen Photos. Neither Mr. Cole nor Mr. Franklin were eligible. He remembers:

The Pulitzer Prize is like the American World Series, it’s a bit of a misnomer, since the only ones who can apply are those working for an American newspaper or wire service, not exactly a world wide photojournalism competition, not to say they don’t produce some great winners that would’ve done well or won in a true world event. American magazines are not allowed to enter the Pulitzer competition although there was a time when they were back in the 60-70’s. 

He remembers working with Mr. Franklin:

Although our magazines were competitors, Stuart and I were far more concerned with watching each other’s backs than anything else. We also shot our tank photos shoulder to shoulder, and used various focal lengths at different moments. I think it is pretty safe to say that we both have fairly identical photos of the scene. He has them tighter than the one shot Magnum released and I have them more loose, and closer to his version, than what Newsweek and World Press released [1].

He also gives behind-the-scenes look at winning the World Press Award:

Upon being notified of the World Press Award, I requested that they make us co-winners, since we had the same frames just different cropping. They refused and said they liked the tighter crop. I’ve always said about photo contests that with one set of judges you get one set of winners, given a different set of judges they most likely would’ve selected his version, I still think they should’ve given it to both of us, and always will.

And I asked him about the cameras, and whether there were a lot of people looking out from the balconies:

My shots were made with 2 Nikon FM2, a Nikkor 300mm f/4 ED, and 180mm f/2.8 on Kodak 400 ASA color negative film. The story behind the film is an interesting one. Usually I shot Kodachrome and Fujichrome throughout the month that I was there, however, since we were on deadline and the only place to process the film without detection was the AP’s office, using C-41, I had decided to go with the color negative that day. Stuart’s film is Fujichrome I believe. 

I believe we were on the 6th floor balcony, you might want to check that with Stuart [2]. There were a number of people watching from various balconies, a lot of undercover police on rooftops and balconies, but I didn’t see that much press. For an understanding of what the actual scene looked like refer to the attached photos. What most people don’t realize is how much firepower was actually at the scene and had been going since the night of June 3.

As for what happened afterwards, he gave a detailed story to BBC in 2004:

Later, Stuart left to go to Beijing University and I stayed behind to see what else might happen. Shortly after he left, PSB agents crashed through our hotel room door. Four agents swept in and assaulted me while a few others grabbed my cameras. 

They ripped the film from my cameras and confiscated my passport. They then forced me to write a statement that I was photographing during martial law, which unbeknown to me carried a hefty prison sentence. They then put a guard at the door.

I had hidden the roll with the tank pictures in its plastic film can in the holding tank of the toilet [3]. When they left, I retrieved it and later made my way to AP to develop and transmit it to Newsweek in New York.

I have requested his contact sheets, but Mr. Cole currently doesn’t have ready access to them. He sent me these photos (which are in sequence) instead. You can click to enlarge — and pay particular attention to the third one, which is the original of the above photo (180 mm shot):

Also, if you want to correspond with me (even if you are not an award-winning photographer), my email is here. Preferably for hollers, use my twitter @aalholmes instead. 


[1] I don’t know why Newsweek and World Press put out a terrible quality, grainy picture of the Tank Man Moment (see here on my old post). This 300-mm shot definitely was not representative of the actual scene nor of Mr. Cole’s compositions seen in other frames.

[2] On a previous BBC interview, Mr. Cole mentioned that Stuart Franklin had an eighth-floor room with balcony.

[3] Mr. Franklin had his film smuggled out in a packet of tea by a French student who later delivered it to Franklin’s Parisian office. Mr. Widener gave his film to a college student in shorts and T-shirt, who would not arouse suspicions, and who took them to AP Office in his underwear.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 14, 2012 at 1:17 pm

12 Responses

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  1. […] Originally, Iconic Photos wrote (until July 2012): Although Franklin’s picture had the best vantage, it was Widener who was nominated for the Pulitzer and Cole who won World Press Photo. Franklin had been disadvantaged because he worked for a private firm (Magnum) whereas Widener (AP) and Cole (Newsweek) worked for mainstream media.  For further clarification, see New York Times and Charlie Cole’s response. […]

  2. Hey, nice to know the original frame. There were a lot more tanks behind the man. A crop was necessary but I don’t like the extreme cropping that the editors chose. Was the idea that still prevails between news agencies to show the very obvious and literal. Anyone knows what happened with the man in front the tanks?


    July 14, 2012 at 3:13 pm

  3. MDK,

    The reason for the graininess etc. is to increase DRAMA. Contrast and graininess always add a sense of High emotional impact and a catch as catch can aura to a scene, whereas a sharp in focus shot with perfectly balanced color and contrast has the opposite effect: staged.

    The editors certainly knew their stuff and the accolades accorded the final selection proves their worth.

    Your Obt .Svt.
    Col. Korn
    Chief O’ Mayhem in the Great WW-2 (And the Cold War)
    Now Chief O’ Security, Sanitation (And the Complaint Dept)
    OXOjamm Studios.

    Col Korn

    July 14, 2012 at 4:35 pm

  4. Have to say this is one of the most insightful follow ups to one of your posts and one of the most iconic images I’ve ever seen. The prints that are attached are as mind blowing as the original much distributed crop… Thanks to thequintessential and Charlie Cole for helping explain this situation far more than the single image could.

    Scott Gelston

    July 14, 2012 at 11:50 pm

  5. […] year, I marked the occasion by an interview with Charlie Cole, the photographer who took one of the iconic Tank Man photos. The year before, I remarked upon the […]

  6. To whoever is concerned about China, please click for a suggestion by an Aussie Life Saver.

    Colin Leung

    February 17, 2014 at 10:12 am

  7. […] a similar footnote about smuggling to a great post about Charlie Cole in 2012, “Mr. Widener gave his film to a college student in shorts and T-shirt, who would not […]

  8. […] June 5th in various ways over the last five years. With a contact sheet in 2013, with an interview with Charlie Cole, the photographer who took one of the iconic Tank Man photos in 2012. The year before, I remarked […]

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