Deception and One Last Roll of Film: The Story Behind the Tank Man Photo

As part of their incredible “100 Most Influential Photographs of All Time” project, TIME is telling the stories behind some of the most powerful photographs in human history. You’ve no doubt seen Jeff Widener’s iconic “Tank Man” photo … but have you ever heard the full story behind it?

Widener shares this story in his own words in the video interview above. As image after image that he had captured scrolls across the screen, you hear about how he drew “the short straw” and put his life on the line to capture the Tiananmen square protests as they happened.

The photo was captured from a window at the Beijing Hotel, but getting to that window was no small feat. Security at the hotel was using cattle prods on journalists, so Widener had to hide his camera and find someone who would let him up to their room without alerting security. That’s where Kirk Martsen comes into the picture.


The iconic photo above would not exist without Martsen, who snuck Widener up to his room and then went out and somehow got him one final roll of film when Widener ran out part way through the day.

The iconic shot was one of three he captured of the ‘Tank Man’ on that last roll of film—two were blurry, one was acceptable. The next day, the picture appeared in newspapers around the world, “a global symbol of dignity in the face of violent repression.”

“Everybody connects to this that all hope is not lost, that you can make a stand,” says Widener in closing. “That there is some dignity, and that you fight for your rights.” The Tank Man, unlike ‘Napalm Girl‘ or ‘Afghan Girl,’ was never identified. But if he lost his life that day, Widener’s photo ensured it was not in vain.