On the way to Beijing in late May of 1989, Stuart Franklin bought a long mirror lens in the Dubai airport. He had been called in a hurry by his agency, Magnum, to cover the growing student protests in Tiananmen Square. Several days later, on June 5, this lens came in handy as Franklin was photographing from the balcony of the Beijing Hotel with fellow magazine photographer Charlie Cole, capturing what would become the visual emblem of the largest political protest in communist Chinese history: a lone man squaring off in the face of an oncoming column of tanks.
I spoke with Franklin about his experience witnessing the historical events of Tiananmen Square and what it means to him now, 25 years later.
ALEXA KEEFE: What was it like being a journalist in China at the time?
STUART FRANKLIN: Generally speaking, in many parts of the world where journalists worked—the ‘80s were an extraordinarily busy time for news—you were very rarely fingered as a journalist. Terrible things generally didn’t happen to you. There was a sort of an awed respect for journalists that seems to have eroded in the past 25 years. I had a bicycle; I cycled around Beijing; I talked to students; I went to the university, looked at their printing press.
I was welcomed, in a way, as somebody who was reporting on what was going on. Things changed a little bit after the military rolled into central Beijing on the 2nd of June. There was an edgier air, but even then most of the military weren’t that interested in us, the reporters. They were more interested in them, the protesters.
ALEXA: Your film was later smuggled out of the country in a box of tea. Why was this?
STUART: The hotel I was staying in, the Beijing Hotel, was owned and run by a branch of the military. On the night of [June] 4th they occupied the lobby and started searching journalists and confiscating film. Paranoia set in and we decided to hide our film and try to smuggle it out.
[This] was a natural development—a sort of tightening up—and a realization that they weren’t going to let it go on as a peaceful demonstration.
ALEXA: The photograph of the man in front of the tank was taken the day following the military crackdown during which an untold number of protesters were killed or wounded. What were you experiencing then?
STUART: Largely frustration. What I really wanted to do was to get out of the hotel and go and find out by visiting the hospitals the scale of the injured, to find out what had actually happened the night before in some kind of quantifiable way. The fact that I couldn’t leave the hotel was hugely frustrating.
I carried in my mind very powerful images from Czech civilians facing off with Soviet tanks as they moved into Prague in ‘68. I realized I wasn’t actually there, I was there looking down from a balcony with a long lens. What propelled the image, and what made it iconic, isn’t the skill of me as a photographer but the television footage that everybody got behind. Don’t forget this guy was kind of dancing in front of the tank, and that’s what captured the world’s imagination. The photograph that I took, and a few other people took, was sort of a souvenir— a still, in a sense—of that.
ALEXA: What were your thoughts when you saw the pictures on those rolls of film?
STUART: My main aim was to photograph that event in a number of different ways— there is that picture but I was reaching around and using a range of different lenses to show the whole context of all the tanks rolling out, them confronting a bunch of students who were further down the road nearer to the square.
ALEXA: So was this a process of getting into the moment?
STUART: Sort of, yeah. I had this guy from Vanity Fair standing next to me telling me this was a really important moment. I believed him. I’ve been in news for many years. It was an obviously hugely significant moment so I did the best I could to cover it as professionally and as thoroughly as I could. I had no idea anyone other than me and Charlie were taking photographs. I had no idea there was television footage.
ALEXA: The pictures of the man in front of the tank are photographs you are remembered for taking. What are your thoughts on being part of this shared experience?
STUART: As a photographer, as a journalist, one is always privileged to be a witness of events as they unfold, so my memory is really one of having the privilege to have been there because no matter how you see news on your TV screen or on your mobile phone or whatever, it’s never the thick description that you get when you are actually there and you understand the nuances, the contradictions, the larger human event larger than can ever be described in a three-minute television broadcast. It was a huge privilege to have been there, to have been given the role of a witness of the event. It’s a great job, being a photojournalist.
You can see more of Franklin’s work on his website.