Sunday, February 20, 2011

Iconic Photographs: Tank Man

(Click mon photos to enlarge).

A photograph may be iconic for being a memorable moment frozen in time, or because it is a significant first or records a historic event, or simply because it has developed a popular awareness for some reason. There are a myriad reasons as to why a photograph comes to be regarded as iconic.

One photograph has developed such a status by recording a brief moment of courage by an unknown, ordinary individual, a moment of inspiration in history.

At time when protests against governments have spread from Egypt to other middle east countries, it is worth reflecting on such earlier events.

In 1989 hundreds of thousands of demonstrators occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, calling for political reform and the resignation of the communist leadership. They were led by students, 3,000 of whom staged a hunger strike in the square. The old guard of leaders determined to crack down on the protest and sent in troops. In the massacre that followed, more than one thousand unarmed protesters were killed by government troops. Apart from troops, tanks were used to crush vehicles, obstacles and people.

The morning after the massacre, more tanks were sent to the scene. A man with a shopping bag in each hand stood in front of the column of tanks, bringing it to a halt. He even climbed onto the lead tank to remonstrate with the occupants before being led away. There has been conjecture as to whether those who led him away were concerned civilians or secret police and as to whether he was executed. To this day his identity and fate remain unknown.

Four photographers managed to capture the image on film, although the photograph by Jeff Widener is the most commonly reproduced. It appears above.

The four photographs of the man and the tanks on Changan Avenue, all taken from the Beijing Hotel. Left to right, top to bottom: Charlie Cole, Jeff Widener/Associated Press, Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos, Arthur Tsang Hin Wah/Reuters.

A video and short history appears at:
It is well worth a look.

Known today only by the name Tank Man, the man who stopped the tanks, if only for a brief time, has become an iconic symbol for the democracy movement in China.  He has also become an international symbol for ordinary citizens standing up to injustice, no matter how powerful the opponent.

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