A chat with the photographer behind 'Tank Man,' a photo that is widely considered one of the iconic images of the 20th century.
Chances are that in your lifetime, you’ve seen the iconic “Tank Man” photograph. The year was 1989. A man standing alone before a line of tanks on Chang’an Avenue near Tiananmen Square. It’s a picture that’s inspired people all over the world. It’s also been heavily suppressed in the very country it was taken.
Jeff Widener is the man behind the photograph, which he says was a “lucky shot”. What the world doesn’t know, however, is that Widener is so much more than the photographer behind one iconic image. He’s spent years in Asia chronicling the stories and struggles of people.
We were interested in finding out more about Widener and his career, and thankfully got the opportunity just hours before his expected departure to Africa where he’ll be doing work for a non-governmental organization:
PetaPixel: Can you talk about your background and how you came to be a photographer?
Jeff Widener: One day while living in Scottsdale Arizona in 1963, my father Don Widener brought a Life Magazine friend over to the house to make some family pictures. When Leigh Wiener opened his camera bag, I just about blew a valve. There were lenses, cameras, filters, flashes with bulbs, light meter dials, boxes and boxes of colorful film boxes. That image stayed in my memory forever. How little did I know that some day myself I would have a two-page spread in Life Magazine.
As the years progressed, I became fixated with cameras. My father had a Topcon Auto 100 35mm camera that Wiener had recommended because it was one of the world’s first automatic SLRs. I used to sneak it to Junior High School when I lived in Southern California, and I still have some of those images today.
My parents were aware of the scam and gifted it to me on graduation. At Cleveland High School in Northridge, California, photography instructor Harry Ibach found me wandering the halls shooting cheerleaders. He asked me if I was interested in enrolling in his class, and I accepted. We still stay in close touch to this day.
Then in my senior year of high school I made the difficult decision to transfer to Reseda High School which had a government funded color darkroom under the direction of legendary instructor Warren King. A former WWII combat photographer, King had managed to produce more photography scholarship students than any other school in the nation. That year I won the 1974 Kodak/Scholastic National Photography Scholarship beating out 8000 students for a portfolio and I spent that summer photographing big game in Kenya and Tanzania as part of an African studies program.
The experience influenced my decision to be a photojournalist and then that next year I enrolled at the Los Angeles Pierce College newspaper the Roundup. Two years later, I was hired as a staff photographer on the Whittier Daily News in California where Nixon was born.
PP: What excites you most about photography in general?
JW: The unexpectedness, the challenge of access, the reward acknowledgment.
PP: What’s in Jeff Widener’s camera bag today?
JW: I was up all night trying to figure that one out. Sebastiao Salgado stopped fighting TSA officers over X-Ray machines, and I think he now shoots medium format digital with analog follow through. I dread dealing with TSA over the X-Rays but I just figure I will chance it. Hopefully the machines are not too old in Luanda.
I’m taking digital D700 bodies (2) for the security of the project and the Leicas for me. I was going to photograph the project with film but Leica rangefinders can be temperamental especially with film in very harsh and unpredictable environments.
So in one Domke bag I have two Leica M7 rangefinder cameras with 28mm Summicron, 50mm collapsible Summitar from 1951 with blue coating. A 35mm F1.4 Aspherical Summilux, 90mm F2.8 Elmarit, and 135mm F4.0 Elmar.
On the digital side I am taking two Nikon D700 cameras with 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 70-400mm lenses. Also 50 rolls of Tri-X 35mm 36 exposure rolls. Two 64GB compact flash cards with a 32GB as backup and some smaller cards as well. The Nikon F100 may not be used but just in case I have access to other focal length lenses for film.
PP: How did you get involved with photojournalism?
JW: During the 1972 presidential campaign, I heard that Senator George McGovern was speaking at a shopping mall in downtown Los Angeles. I rode my bicycle all the way from the San Fernando Valley to attend the rally. As a bonus, Senator Ted Kennedy was also there.
I recall getting so jealous of all the press photographers. They had the access, they had the Nikons and even the gall to flaunt their motor drives. After repeatedly getting kicked out of the press pen by Secret Service, one photographer from the Los Angeles Times took pity on me and hid me near the front of the stage. That story won me my first photo award from the Los Angeles Photo Center in the photojournalism category.
PP: One of your most famous photos is “Tank Man.” What’s the story behind this iconic image? Did you think it’d be the widely-circulated and famous image it has become?
JW: Basically it’s a lucky shot from being in the wrong place at the right time. I had been knocked silly the night before from a stray protestor brick that hit me in the face — the Nikon F3 Titanium camera absorbed the blow sparring my life. I was also suffering from a bad case of the flu during the whole Tiananmen story so I was pretty messed up.
Our Asia photo editor had been in Beijing for weeks covering Mikhail Gorbachev’s high level meetings with Chinese leaders and was anxious to return to Tokyo but unfortunately the night before the massacre. That left AP Beijing photo editor Mark Avery, New Delhi based AP photographer Liu Heung Shing and myself to cover one of the biggest stories of the 20th century.
After sneaking into the Beijing Hotel with the help of an American college student named Kirk Martsen, I managed to get one fairly sharp frame of Tank Man from the 5th floor balcony of the Beijing Hotel with an 800mm focal length lens. I had run out of film and Martsen managed to find a single roll of 100 ASA from a tourist.
The problem was it was 100 speed and I usually used 800. This meant that when I was eyeballing the light, I was three stops too low on the Nikon FE2 auto shutter speed. It was a miracle that the picture came out at all. It wasn’t tack sharp but good enough to front almost every newspaper in the world the next day.
I never dreamed the image would turn into a cult thing. I guess the first time I realized I had something was when David Turnley of the Detroit Free Press told me that he thought I would win a Pulitzer for the image. As fate would have it, David won it that year and I was a finalist.
It’s funny because I recall being in the middle of a Bangkok slum that year and around the corner came a familiar face. It was Pulitzer Prize winner Stan Grossfeld who I had previously met. His first words were “Widener…you was robbed”.
PP: Any repercussions from taking that photograph? Or would you say it opened doors for you, in terms of your career?
JW: The image has been a blessing and a curse. In one sense it opened a lot of doors. I became one of the closest photographers of the band UB 40 who I met in Tahiti in 2003. Most were photo enthusiasts and liked to show me off to other colleagues. I even made an album cover with them: “TWENTYFOURSEVEN”.
On the other hand, not a lot of people know my other work and as an artist, you kind of don’t want to be remembered as the one wonder kid or “Gilligan”. This is something I hope to change with a book I am working on reflecting my posting as the Southeast Asia Picture Editor in Bangkok from 1987-1995.
PP: What stands out to you when you pick up a camera and start documenting the world? In other words, what in a scene makes you say, “Wow… I need to take a picture of that!”?
JW: Forget shutter speeds, F stops, camera brand or anything else. Feel your subject and let your finger flinch. If you see something that raises your heart rate, push first and think later. When an image reminds a viewer of a past lover or an old song that lingers onward, then you have succeeded.
PP: Not people are aware of your eight-year posting as an Associated Press picture editor in Southeast Asia. Can you tell us about that experience?
JW: For a period of eight years, I knew every airport first class and business lounge in Asia. I had my favorite five star hotels but also lovely flea bags like the Army Guest House in Hanoi. I have fond memories of all. I covered everything from Liz Taylor to Khmer Rouge and Mount Pinatubo volcanoes erupting in the Philippines. I been shot at, gassed, been hit by rocks, narrowly missed rockets and almost crashed on every kind of aircraft there is.
I have privately chatted with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, been insulted by Princess Anne, shoved by President Bill Clinton, accidentally stepped on the robe of Pope John Paul II and almost got beaten up by Chinese security while following Prime Minister John Major at the Forbidden City. One fist fight with a French photographer was barely avoided after he intentionally pushed me to the ground in Jakarta at the feet of a giggling Princess Diana.
But then there are also the quiet moments like being caught in an evening downpour at an isolated Thai fishing village. Or having a chance meeting with a fellow westerner in a shabby outdoor Cambodian bar. Probably my most memorable moment was kissing a beautiful Irish redhead on the top of an ancient Cambodian temple at Angkor Wat as the sun set and the monkeys chattered in the jungle growth below. A typical movie scene but real. There are just so many memories which I hope to have in a future book.
PP: You have an upcoming book project that stems from your time in Southeast Asia. What do you hope to come of this project?
JW: Associated Press in Bangkok was often nicknamed the “Eddie Adams posting” after the famous photojournalist because Eddie was always traveling through the region. I actually got to meet him briefly when he came through the AP Bangkok office.
I was very fortunate to have had one of the last great romantic postings for an expat photojournalist. Just about every photographer who ran the Bangkok AP photo operation won a Pulitzer. I was odd man out as a finalist.
Today these postings are being phased out due to cost cutting measures and changes in the media. Gone are the days when a jet setting photographer had his own company Air Travel Card and choice of five star hotels with generous expense accounts. It’s these wonderful stories that I want to share behind my Asia images which most people have never seen and I hope that this book will reflect that. We are presently looking for a publisher.
PP: What advice do you have for aspiring photojournalists out there?
JW: It’s a different world out there now but if you really want to be a photojournalist, you will. Only the truly committed can survive the minefield of disadvantages that a photojournalist will face. As photographer James Nachtway once told me…”Persevere”.
PP: What’s next for Jeff Widener, aside from the book project?
JW: In 14-hours I board a KLM flight to Luanda, Angola to work with an NGO that build schools for children.
PP: Can you talk more about your trip to Luanda? How long will you stay? What do you hope to achieve?
JW: I’m heading down to Southeastern Angola to photograph for an NGO that builds schools for children. It’s one way to get access to some pretty remote parts of the world and tell interesting stories. In this particular case I have to wait and see what that story might be because you have to juggle your host with personal aims. I’m 57 in August and just getting to the airport this morning was a challenge.
PP: If you could go back and change anything in your career, what would you change?
JW: Probably every stupid mistake I ever made. Perfection and diplomacy rarely coexists. I would have probably taken a chance and gone to Eastern Europe prior to the fall of communism like Anthony Suau did. His book “Beyond The Fall” was an exceptional work. We both share passion for Leicas.
There doesn’t seem to be any stopping Jeff Widener on his continued journey in making beautiful, real photographs. It’s seemingly in his blood, and we can’t wait to see what else is in store.
We’d like to thank Jeff for his time spent answering our questions.
For more information on Widener’s work, visit his official website.
Image credits: Portrait of Jeff Widener by Corinna Seidel, photographs by Jeff Widener