24 Years After Tiananmen

Iconic Photos’ annual look-back at a nasty and brutish affair.


June 5th is upon us again. In 1989, the Communist government in Beijing marred the date with a brutal and bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters gathered on Tiananmen Square.

Last 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 Zeligian appearance of a former Chinese prime minister in one of the photos taken on the square. In 2009, I covered various versions of the Tank Man photos. In between, we saw the defacing of the Mao portrait during the protests and a defiant Ai Wei Wei. A profound irony is they cannot access WordPress from China, so I remain, as always, preaching to the choir.

Above is the contact sheet from Stuart Franklin’s version of the Tank Man photos.  His photos nearly risked confiscation by the Chinese police, but Franklin had left moments earlier to cover events at the Beijing University before the police came knocking on the journalists’ hotel. Afterwards his negatives were smuggled out in a packet of tea by a French student who later delivered it to Franklin’s Parisian office. Franklin, working then for Time, won the World Press Photo Award for his coverage.

Charlie Cole on Tiananmen

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.

The Tank Man



This is a picture that needs no caption. However, very few people know or care about the exact details of the events that transpired on June 5th, 1989. The day after Chinese troops expelled thousands of demonstrators from Tiananmen Square in Beijing (in a process that left thousands dead), the tanks returning from their mission at the Square were confronted with a lone rebel. The rebel’s identity is never revealed nor that of the commander in the lead tank who stopped.

The purely symbolic act was instantly captured on video and on cameras–whether the unknown rebel deliberated planned his protest in front of the Beijing Hotel where the press corps reside is also an equal mystery. As Time magazine wrote, “[He] may have impressed his image on the global memory more vividly, more intimately than even Sun Yat-sen did. Almost certainly he was seen in his moment of self-transcendence by more people than ever laid eyes on Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and James Joyce combined.” Video clips aired on BBC and CNN and three photos (from to bottom by Jeff Widener, AP; Charlie Cole, Newsweek; and Stuart Franklin, Magnum and Time) made sure of that.

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.

There were a fourth and a fifth photographers on the scene too. Arthur Tsang Hin Wah of Reuters and Terril Jones, an AP reporter who accidentally captured the scene unknowingly from the ground level.