Photographer Jeff Widener explains how a series of mishaps meant it was almost the picture that got away
A solitary figure in a white shirt and black trousers clutches a bag and stands in front of a column of halted tanks, a cluster of street lights floating to one side like balloons. The mans shoulders are rounded, almost passive in front of the four tanks whose gun barrels are raised as if in an ironic salute.
Thirty years on from the violent crushing of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the mans identity remains unknown; it is by no means certain he is still alive. But the photograph that captured his solitary moment of dissent in June 1989 remains one of the most memorable images of the last century, known universally as Tank Man.
Jeff Widener was not the only photographer to capture the scene, but it is his image listed as one of Time magazines 100 most influential of all time that has become the most famous. Every Tank Man photo has a different flavour. I think I was lucky I was using such a fine-grained film. It allowed it to be blown up larger. I think mine also has a more Gandhi feel. He looks more vulnerable: a common man asking a question, like: why are you doing this? My feeling is that this guy had no concern for his safety. He was fed up and just didnt care. He just wanted answers.
Speaking to the Observer before the 30th anniversary of the protests, Widener recalled that the picture was almost not taken, as circumstances conspired against him at almost every turn. On the day Tank Man was taken, 5 June 1989, the then Associated Press photographer had flu and was concussed from a blow to the head the night before that had destroyed one of his cameras. He had also run out of film, and only managed to secure a roll by asking a US exchange student from whose hotel balcony he was working to scrounge some for him.
Changing lenses in the midst of the encounter, later reimagined in Lucy Kirkwoods play and television series Chimerica, Widener almost missed the moment, managing to shoot just three pictures before the man with the shopping bags was hustled away. Of those three photographs, two were not in sharp enough focus. The third, however, made Widener and his unknown subject famous.
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