The Story Behind the Iconic “Tank Man” Tiananmen Square Photo


When the Chinese military moved into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989 to forcibly remove pro-democracy protestors, an anonymous man famously decided to place himself in front of the long column of Chinese tanks that were rumbling into the area. Photos and videos of the incident were immediately published and broadcast around the world. AP photographer Jeff Widener’s “Tank Man” photo, shown above, is widely considered to be one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century.

The Wall Street Journal has put out an interesting interview with Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Liu Heung-Shing, who was also an AP photographer covering the incident. Liu tells us how Widener’s photo came about:

An interesting fact was that the photographers and agency needed to protect the images from being confiscated by the government. After learning about the incident and the photographs, Liu instructed Widener to hide the film in his hotel room.

Widener then went down to the hotel lobby, found “a blonde American guy” with a ponytail and backpack, and paid the man to sneak the film past plainclothes police and to the Associated Press.

Widener’s image was published on newspapers around the world, but Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin captured an alternate photo that offers a wider view into what was going on:


Here’s some video footage of the incident that was captured in the photographs above:

TIME magazine would later name the “Unknown Rebel” (as the man came to be called) as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.

(via WSJ and THEME)

Image credits: Photographs by Jeff Widener/AP and Stuart Franklin/Magnum

  • hawk1500

    I think it was June 4th, not the 5th.

  • MT_Nat_Photog

    It really is an amazing photograph. The video of the event is not half as powerful. Nor would be the written word description. A lesson to media corporations looking to rid themselves of still photographers.

    What amazes me is that Widener was runner-up in the Pulitzer that year. I don’t know if it was a case where there were too many similar images or what, however 24 years on it holds its resonance. In a documentary about tank man that I watched on PBS it was mentioned that many of the Eastern European protestors were motivated by the image to stand up to their regimes in the following Autumn.

  • Neil

    This happened the day after the Square was cleared, so I believe June 5th is accurate for this photo.

  • hawk1500

    The text read, “When the Chinese military moved into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989 to forcibly remove pro-democracy protestors,” pretty sure that occurred on the 4th. Wikipedia says 3rd-4th, but either way, not the 5th?

  • szfofa

    If you can find a copy of the most recent Resource Magazine, he tells the story and it’s amazing (the issue with the marriage graphic on the cover).

  • MT_Nat_Photog

    The image was taken on the 5th, the day after the massacre. On the 4th Chinese Army units from the distant provinces came into the city and fought student protestors at various roadblocks in the city. That’s where the bloodshed occurred. Once they reached Tiananmen Square they negotiated with the student leaders who decided to end the protest after hundreds, possibly thousands of protesters had already died, in other parts of Beijing. You can see from the wide shot that the square is mostly empty.

    What’s incredible about the moment was that the “Tank Man” knew what the Army had done the day before, but still stood up to them.

  • Guest

    I don’t think you understand what I am saying…I wasn’t talking about the picture but the text…they moved in and cleared the square out on the 4th, or did they kill everyone on the 4th and then somehow moved in again to clear everyone out?

  • Rebecca Roth

    I was able to visit Tiananmen Square about a month ago, it was hard to think of anything else when I was there. Thanks for sharing this story.

  • Juan Alvarez

    DEJA VU (repost?)

  • Samuel

    they moved in and cleared everyone on the 4th, and the killings took place on the fourth. then, when the army decided to leave after the students and them reached an agreement to end the protest, the tank man decides to confront them on the fifth

  • markifi

    what is an AP photographer?

  • Chloe

    Well I respect the soldier in the tank for not murdering him

  • Lisa Goike

    Associated Press