Sunday, June 05, 2016

What's An Iconic Photograph? Thinking About Tank Man

 A lone student protestor blocks Chinese army tanks near Tiananmen Square.

In 1989, when this photo was taken, most people still believed in the power of a photograph to tell the truth.  With digital photography and Photoshop people are still taken in by the apparent 'truth' of a photograph, but many people are also much more skeptical.

PetaPixel writes about this photo:
"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."
 Though Business Insider says that Stuart Franklin's image is the iconic image,
". . . Franklin's image is arguably the most iconic, having appeared in Time and Life magazines, and winning him a World Press Award."
There were actually four photographers who managed to smuggle their film out of Beijing that day, all shooting from balconies or rooms at the Beijing Hotel about half a mile away:  Widener, Charlie Cole, Franklin, and Arthur Tsang Hin Wah. A fifth photographer, Terril Jones, got shots from ground level, but did not publish them until the 20th anniversary in 2009.  He wasn't aware of what he had until the film was developed several weeks after the events.  There were also two videos made of the event that got out.

My questions today, 27 years later, are about what makes a picture 'iconic,' what story does it tell, and  how close is the story to what really happened (assuming anyone can even know that)?   I'm afraid I'm only going to make some quick stabs at answers, and perhaps raise more questions about how we interpret what we see.  

1.  What makes a picture iconic?

Wikipedia's definition is similar to many others I found:
An icon (from Greek εἰκών eikōn "image") is typically a painting depicting Christ, Mary, saints and/or angels, which is venerated among Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and in certain Catholic Churches. Icons may also be cast in metal, carved in stone, embroidered on cloth, painted on wood, done in mosaic or fresco work, printed on paper or metal, etc. Icons are often illuminated with a candle or jar of oil with a wick.
The term has evolved to have a more generic meaning which is appropriate to the idea of an 'iconic photo'  (from Oxford online):
"A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something: 'this iron-jawed icon of American manhood.'"
So, what exactly is the tank man photo a symbol of?

2.  What does the picture tell us?

Here's how the New York Times interpreted the photo in 2009:
"The moment instantly became a symbol of the protests as well as a symbol against oppression worldwide — an anonymous act of defiance seared into our collective consciousnesses."
Charlie Cole, one of the photographers on a balcony at the Beijing Hotel, says it this way (from the same NY Times article, in which  he also gives a detailed account of what happened and how he got his film past the Chinese Public Security Bureau):
"I think his action captured peoples’ hearts everywhere, and when the moment came, his character defined the moment, rather than the moment defining him. He made the image. I was just one of the photographers."

For people outside of China, this is probably the story we give to and take from this photo. [Yes, 'give to' because all interpretation is based on how our brains relate the meaning based on what we already know and expect.]

For Chinese officials, I suspect it represents the restraint of the Chinese government which patiently bore months of demonstrations.  It also showed the compassion of the tank drivers who didn't run over this man.  We get a hint of this in a 1990 interview Barbara Walters conducted with then Chinese Communist Party Secretary Jiang Zemin.
"Walters : Yes. Do you have any idea what happened to him ?
Jiang : I think the picture you mentioned just now shows exactly that the
person stood in front of a tank and the tank stopped. Why did the
tank stopped ? Did the child stop the tank ? It's because the tanks--
the people in the tanks -- didn't want to run over the people
standing in the way.
But I think this picture just proved that."  (Emphasis added)
(Transcript of the interview are from a Google Group forum.)
I'd add one more interpretation.  I arrived in Hong Kong for my Fulbright at Chinese University of Hong Kong in July 1989, barely a month after Tiananmen.  I met a number of people who had been in Beijing during those times, and ended up taking a group of students to Beijing the following May.  It was a trip we had to schedule well before the first anniversary of Tiananmen, because the parents of my students didn't want them in Beijing during the anniversary.  One student wasn't allowed to come at all because his father thought it was potentially too dangerous.

But I'd like to highlight here just one story.  I had a student who was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  He'd spent time in a mental hospital and had either thought about or actually tried to commit suicide (I don't recall exactly.)  He told me his interpretation of this picture, which went something like this:
"I wanted to be Tank Man.  I could end my life as a hero."
I'd say this was a version of what in the US is called suicide by cop.  When he told me this, he had a wistful smile on his face.  He considered this the perfect way to go.  This was his reaction to this photo.  [As I write this, 27 years later, I realize that I don't know if he had a wistful smile.  I've seen him with a wistful smile, but did he really have it when he told me that?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I'm just writing this to remind folks not to trust people's old memories.]

We could spend days studying what this image means to different people and whether it has any meaning to people in China at all?  The photo was suppressed in China.  Given the scope of the internet today, I'm not sure how many people have since had access to this picture.  But as I was working on this post, I came across a  Japan Times story on a photoshopped version of this picture from 2013 with Tank Man standing in front of a line of giant, yellow rubber duckies.  The article said
"Internet searches for 'big yellow duck' were blocked by Chinese censors, but the image went viral on social media overseas."
But let's move on to the more concrete aspects of the picture.  What does it factually tell us?

3.   How close is our understanding of the content of the picture to what actually happened?

Here's how Wikipedia describes the photo:
"Tank Man (also Unknown Protester or Unknown Rebel) is the nickname of an unidentified man who stood in front of a column of tanks on June 5, 1989, the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 by force. As the lead tank maneuvered to pass by the man, he repeatedly shifted his position in order to obstruct the tank's attempted path around him. The incident was filmed and seen worldwide."
Did you catch that?  June 5.  June 4 is the date of the so called Tiananmen Massacre.  The photo was taken the day after.  I didn't realize that until I was working on this post.  If you google Tank Man Tiananmen, you'll see a number of pictures.  This one is very closely cropped.  Others show a long line of tanks.  And here's one from the shots taken by Stuart Franklin (you can see it and more of the original slides and about Franklin's story here.)

Image from Business Insider

This is an image of one of the original slides that Stuart Franklin took that day from a balcony of the Beijing Hotel.
The green arrow was on the image I copied.  It points to Tank Man walking into the road.  I've added the yellow circle.  It shows Tiananmen Square, which continues to the left of the circle beyond the photo.  The tanks are headed away from Tiananmen Square.  In the bigger scheme of things, I don't think that means all that much, except for the way we in the West, most of whom have never been to Tiananmen Square, associate this with atrocities in Tiananmen Square itself.  Knowledge gained since June 3, 4, and 5, 1989, seems to show that most of the people who died did not die at Tiananmen Square, but at other locations in Beijing.  And most of the deaths were workers, not students.  Again, I think those are details that don't change the meaning of all this, but I am simply trying to discuss the difference between people's perception of the facts and the facts of the photo.  And how cropping
a photo can take away the context of the image.

Again, the images (since multiple images of this event  shot from the same location were published and now we can see many more that weren't originally published) have a meaning that goes beyond what happened that day.

And now that we've discussed the photo and questions about what it means, here's some video footage of the event that also gives more context (though it doesn't show the people walking Tank Man away.)

And, here's another take on the image.  Stuart Franklin talks about another image he took during the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in spring 1989, that he would prefer symbolized Tiananmen demonstrations.

From Business Insider
"This is an image that changed everything because, for me, it crystallized the spirit of revolt. The uprising in Tiananmen Square was one of the most moving events I’ve witnessed. It was a tragedy to see unarmed young people shot down in cold blood. It was a movement for freedom of expression, for basic rights, and against the outrage of official corruption. It ended badly, a stain on the reputation of a great country. The facts should not be denied, but discussed, so that people can move on. A lot of things were misreported on both sides. A lot of outside actors were involved that may have worsened the situation for the students and their protest. I want this photograph to be available to people for whom this is an important memory. It symbolizes the courage of the time. What it doesn’t show is the bloodshed. I am best known for the image of the tank man. That is called an ‘iconic’ image, but what such images sometimes obscure, with the passing of time, is all the other pictures that lend explanatory power to the story. I’m interested in history, and this landmark event changed my life.” — Stuart Franklin

An ironic twist I can't help but mention, TechDirt reports that a Chinese firm now owns the rights to the Tank Man photo.

And finally, I'd note that Tiananmen 天 (tian) , 安 (an) , 门 (men)  means, literally, Heaven+Peaceful+Gate (Door)

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