Tiananmen Square Photographer Discusses Digital Media 20 Years After "Tank Man"

10/28/2016 06:47 pm ET

(This article was originally published by Sling.com on June 4, 2009.) 

When I was introduced to the staff at the Honolulu Advertiser as the new deputy news editor almost a decade ago, I walked around the newsroom, shook a lot of soft hands, and was warmed by alohas and bright smiles. Then I met a fast-talking, wild-haired man with sharp photographer's eyes and a firm grip.

"Hi, I'm Jeff Widener. I took the picture of Tiananmen Square."

"Oh, okay."

"You know it, right?"

Of course I knew that photo. The world knew it. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, and should have won.

Widener was a photographer for the Associated Press, and snapped the photo of a man who stared down a column of tanks in Beijing during bloody pro-democracy protests on June 5, 1989. You can read about how Widener almost didn't get the shot in this CBSNews.com story.

During the years I worked in Hawaii, Widener and I became friends. After the last edition of the paper came out, well after midnight, we'd meet at a sushi spot across the street from the office and complain about our jobs and that day's editorial decisions. You are always right once the final deadline passed. We'd drink Japanese beer and eat edamame and gyoza, which Widener ordered by telling the waitress to bring "some of those little spongy things."

We became friends. I got to know him as an immensely talented photographer whose frustration with his job can make him difficult to work with. At least for others. I enjoyed working with him, even when we disagreed. He's passionate about photojournalism, and ill-suited for paradise. He should be in a a war zone.

Widener's been around the world shooting atrocities of every kind, and he's been backstage with UB40. He's never without a tale, and I appreciate his acerbic tongue. He finds something special in his subjects, whether it's a leper on Kalaupapa or a pregnant meth addict smoking a pipe or a hard-boiled waitress on the sidewalks of New York City. Widener reveals people and places with his camera, moments that flash by too fast for an untrained eye to see.

In the two decades since Tiananmen Square, digital media has changed the world. Some things in China have not changed -- the country still calls the massacre the "Tiananmen incident" -- and while they let Widener back in the country for the anniversary, the government has blocked social networking platforms such as Twitter and Flickr because the sites do not abide by China's policy of never mentioning the massacre publicly. Some Chinese still have never seen the photo.

I recently had a beer with Widener when he was in New York. I wanted his thoughts on journalism in the digital age, and we also traded some emails on the subject. Here are the edited results of our conversations.

If Tiananmen Square happened today, how do you think the coverage would have changed?

There would been dramatically more images filed more quickly because of the advances in digital technology. In 1989, it would take 45 minutes to file one color picture on the Associated Press. Color film developing took almost an hour, as well as film drying. Today, it is possible to file an image from your PDA seconds after is taken.

You almost didn't get the shot that day. You had to rely on a stranger to find you film under tight security, and when the man found it, it was the wrong speed. Do digital cameras make stories like this one a thing of the past?

You still need to make sure that the camera shutter speed is within the tolerance range of your lens. In my situation with Tank Man, I made the correct exposure because the camera was set on automatic. The mistake I made was forgetting the film speed was three stops less sensitive. I normally used 800 ASA back at that time, and I had inserted a single roll of 100 ASA instead. That's because I had run out of film, and an American kid, named Kirk or Kurt, had managed to find a roll from a tourist. It was because of him that the world saw my image. To this day, I have not been able to locate him to say thanks.

Could a single photo such as yours have the same effect today if it had to compete with so many more digital cameras and video cameras, as well as online news outlets?

The cream always rises to the top. The only difference these days is that that there is an increase in potential future icons. Sometimes an image takes a few years to get a mind set with the public.

Do you think the digital age makes it harder for countries like China to suppress information?

Definitely. Already there are reports that the Chinese government has allowed some websites of Tiananmen through the network.

Do you think that lack of ability to control it might be one reason the country is more lenient about it now, like letting you in for the anniversary?

I think China is so big and the world has changed so much over the last half century that it will be very difficult to stop the Democratic avalanche that is sweeping through communist countries.

What do you think of so-called "citizen journalism," the idea that some guy with a cell phone can get photos and post to the Web immediately (as happened with the U.S. Airways crash in the Hudson River)?

I don't think there is anything wrong with citizen journalism as long as the facts are verified and the pictures are edited by professionals back at the publication's news desk.

What are your thoughts on newspapers equipping reporters with digital cameras? Is this a threat to or a devaluation of photojournalism? Or is it just smart in today's digital age?

I do not object to a reporter carrying a small digital video camera for emergencies, but [for a journalist] to [pull] double duty as a still/video photographer is just plain stupid. Photography and reporting are two completely different mind sets.

How has that shot defined you and your career, and how have you defined yourself by that shot?

Well, it has gotten my name out there, but I certainly do not want to be typecast. In some ways I feel like some kind of torch-bearer to spread the news of what happened on that square in 1989. Sometimes I feel like [an] Australian Aborigine, talking story as part of their history. I was a real Charlie Brown in school. I always dropped the ball. Even today, I am a bit of a train wreck in progress when I shoot images. Just like I almost blew the tank picture. But for some strange reason, I always seem to deliver.

What's the next big thing for Jeff Widener?

Maybe escaping Honolulu.

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