The power of one

How Jeff Widener evaded authorities to capture this photograph and smuggle it out of China.

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He might have been hailing a taxi. A slight, earnest man in a plain white shirt, hands full of shopping bags, one raised. Some say he was a student. Others say he was an ordinary Beijinger on his way to work. But what he did that morning, utterly alone out there in the grim concrete acreage of Tiananmen Square, was anything but ordinary. He stood unflinching in the path of advancing tanks until the other guy blinked. The tank commander ordered the machines turned off, and a poignant silence honoured an act of defiance that solidified into a global poster for freedom. Testimony to the power of one.

Tank Man then climbed onto the lead tank and appeared to speak into a number of ports in the turret, before talking with a crew member at the gunner’s hatch. We will likely never know what he said. Then he clambered back down. When the tanks restarted their engines, he returned to his lonely post in front of the lead vehicle—a silent spokesman for millions.

At that point, two blue-clad men pulled Tank Man away, and the trio vanished into a crowd. There are conflicting theories about who they were. Newsweek reporter Charlie Cole maintained they were officers of the Public Security Bureau; Jan Wong believes they were just concerned locals. All efforts to identify Tank Man and relocate him have failed. British tabloid The Sunday Express named him as Wang Weilin, a 19-year-old student who was later charged with ‘political hooliganism’ and executed, but subsequent investigations by Human Rights Watch showed the story had relied on questionable sources.

Censorship has ensured very few Chinese nationals have ever seen those images, captured by five foreign photographers that day. The Associated Press’s Jeff Widener was one of them (the others were Arthur Tsang of Reuters, Charlie Cole for Newsweek, Magnum’s Stuart Franklin and Terril Jones, also of The Associated Press). Widener was assigned to the Beijing Hotel, the objective of most media as it held a commanding view of Tiananmen Square. With the help of an American student, Kirk Mardsen, and an F3 and 400mm lens stuffed inside his denim jacket, a precious few rolls of film in his underwear, Widener got past security police into the Beijing and found an empty room on the sixth floor. It wasn’t easy: he was down with the flu and still nursing head injuries after a rock had hit him during the riots of June 3.

From a balcony, he started shooting as tanks rolled over the cremated carcasses of buses, left by protestors as roadblocks.

Before long he was out of film, and asked Marsden to get him some more. Somehow, the student managed to find a single, precious roll just as more tanks began rolling into Tiananmen Square.

Widener trained the 400 on the column of armour, and was initially annoyed when a man walked into the frame. Convinced the tanks would simply crush the pedestrian, he held his breath and his shutter finger.

It was a good frame, but Widener decided it needed to be tighter. He took one of the biggest gambles of his career and dashed back inside for a doubler, then shot three frames before Tank Man was hustled away. To his horror, Widener only then noticed his shutter speed dial sitting at 30th/sec. He had no idea whether he’d secured a publishable image.

Widener gave the films to Marsden, who concealed it in his underwear before risking his life for the third time that day. Marsden cycled off looking for The Associated Press office, but when he couldn’t find it, gave the films instead to a guard at the US Embassy. The take made it safely to AP, and then onto front pages across the globe.

In April 1998, TIME honoured the “unknown rebel” in its 100 Most Important People of the Century.