(The Lone Protester)
This month marks the 31st anniversary of the “Tank man” incident. While the lone protester will forever remain an icon of civil disobedience in the west, the incident in Tiananmen square remains virtually unknown within China. To my mind, along with The Burning Monk, this is one of the most powerful images ever captured – selfless, fearless, belligerent resistance.
God bless The Heretics.
Only a handful of photographs made it out of the country, just barely. Charlie Cole, passed away late last year, said this took this photograph above: “I’m thinking, ‘This guy is going to be killed any moment now. And if he is, I just can’t miss this. This is something that he’s giving his life for. It’s my responsibility to record it as accurately as possible,’” he told FRONTLINE.
Eventually, a group of people — it is still unclear who they were — ushered the man to the side, and the tanks passed through. To this day the tank man’s identity is unknown, though photos of him ran on the front page of newspapers worldwide. And that is thanks, in part, to people like Cole, who was one of the journalists there to capture the standoff. As he photographed the scene, Cole says that he noticed the Chinese Public Security Bureau (PSB) watching him through binoculars. He had to act quickly to assure that his photos of the historic event would make it out of China.
“I went in and took the film out of the camera and reloaded it into the plastic film can, and went into the toilet, took off the top of the toilet and put it in the holding tank, put the toilet top back on,” Cole recalled.
About 10 to 15 minutes later, the PSB broke through the door of Cole’s hotel room. The officers took a roll of film that Cole had shot from the night before, forced him to sign a confession that he had been photographing during martial law and confiscated his passport.
“They were pretty satisfied they’d cleaned up the situation,” Cole added. He returned to the bathroom a day and a half later to find that the film was still there.“Luckily nobody had flushed the toilet,” he said.
He had the film developed at the Associated Press office in Beijing, and the photo was transmitted to Newsweek in time for his deadline. Cole went on to win the 1990 World Press Photo of the Year, one of the most prestigious awards in photojournalism, for the iconic shot. Since the photos of the tank man published, the Chinese government has worked diligently to keep them from surfacing.
Earlier this year, four men in southwestern China were sentenced up to four years in prison for selling Tiananmen-themed liquor in bottles that evoked images of the tank man. The liquor had been maturing since 1989, the same year as the crackdown on the Tiananmen protests. Though his identity and fate are unknown, 30 years later the photo of tank man’s defiance is still widely regarded as symbol of the protests.“