Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin took one of the iconic photographs of the Twentieth Century: the young protestor confronting a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square during the student uprising in 1989. In a special interview for Virtual Philosopher Franklin explains how he came to take this photograph.
Nigel: Why were you in China?
Stuart: I’d heard about the student protests in Tiananmen Square and my understanding of Chinese history was that any uprising against the government was an extremely serious matter. It is as close as you can get to sacrilege in Chinese culture. We expected something to happen. At Magnum in New York we had a charismatic editorial director Bob Dannin who wanted to send one of our photographers there. I told him I wanted to go, so he used Magnum’s editorial fund to send me to cover the story.
Nigel: And when you got there…
Stuart: The protest was in full flight. What had begun as student protests at the memorial service for the reforming General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, had already metamorphosed into a pro-democracy rally and the numbers present were growing. Students had occupied the whole square; some were on hunger strike. The Marseillaise was being broadcast from the Monument to the People’s Revolution.
Nigel: And were the soldiers there at that point?
Stuart: There were soldiers around the edges of the square. Truckloads of them. Martial law had been declared on 20th May. At the beginning the atmosphere wasn’t tense: it was more like a rock festival with the tents pitched on the square, music playing, young people milling around. I talked a lot with the students, went to the university to look at their printing presses. I tried to get involved with every aspect of the story. After I was there a few days Time Magazine put me on assignment and I had my own bicycle that I kept in the Time Magazine office. It’s probably still there.
Nigel: How long were you in Bejing before the troops moved in?
Stuart: I was there for about six days before the night of June 3rd when the army moved in and the shooting started. We knew something was coming. There was a build up of troops, an increasing atmosphere of tension. Loudspeakers were blaring out messages ordering everyone to disperse. Some did leave then, particularly after there was a bad storm. Many didn’t return after that.
Nigel: Then what happened?
Stuart: It didn’t get dark until about 9 p.m. I remember I was taking pictures in the square at around 10 pm, after dark. Some intermittent shooting began at the edge of the square – apparently at random. I saw someone go down. Then there was complete chaos. Everyone tried to run. It was difficult to tell where the shots were coming from or where to go in the pitch black darkness. The Chinese Army had been ordered to re-take the square at any cost. I managed to photograph students burning an armoured personel carrier…
Nigel: How did you get away?
Stuart: I found my way back to the Hotel Bejing were I was staying close to the square. We didn’t know at the time, but most of the killing was going on in the Western suburbs before the troops got to the square. As many as 2,600 people were killed in those few days.
Nigel: Were you scared?
Stuart: Yes, of course. This wasn’t the first time I’d been shot at in Beijing. A couple of days before I was just leaving a hotel restaurant with some journalists when bullets started ricocheting off the tarmac. We managed to duck down behind the cars and get back into the hotel. On the night of the 3rd June, the photojournalist, Charlie Cole, came to the hotel and shared my room because he couldn’t get back to his hotel. We snatched a few hours of sleep. In the morning the security services raided the hotel and tried to take away our equipment and film. We’d been tipped off about this, and I’d managed to hide most of my film in my luggage and around the room before they arrived. I gave them a few rolls and they left.
Nigel: Then what happened?
Stuart: The Beijing Hotel obliquely overlooks Tiananmen Square. There were several photojournalists there. We were fortunate that we’d stayed so close to the action: some of the other journalists had moved to a hotel two miles from the square a few days earlier because they could get better food there. That morning we got onto the balcony and could see a line of students facing up to the tanks in the distance. We were a long way away. We desperately wanted to go to the hospitals to find out about the killed and injured to get some sense of the scale of what was happening. But we were confined to the hotel. My memory is that the troops started firing at the line of students to break through, but we were so far away that it was hard to tell exactly what was going on. You can see the photographs I took of this in the book Magnum Stories. Eventually the troops broke the line and the students moved aside.
A line of tanks continued up Chang An Avenue nearer to us. I saw this student emerge and stand in front of a tank. The tank stopped. He climbed up on the tank and talked to the driver in the turret. Then he stood in front of the tank again until three civilians dragged him away, and the tanks carried on.
Nigel: Did you realise you'd taken such an important photograph?
Stuart: No, it seemed quite a weak picture compared to images of confrontations with tanks during the Prague Spring. It was television coverage of the event that gave significance to that particular photograph.
Nigel: How did you get the photograph out of China?
Stuart: I hid my films in a box of tea and managed to get a French student to carry them to Paris.
Nigel: Why is it more memorable than the news footage of the same event?
Stuart: Still images always are. There is time to reflect...
© Stuart Franklin, 2006