Tank Man and the Toilet
Charlie Cole’s iconic image of a lone man standing in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, Beijing is one of recent history’s best known photographs.
The plastic-bagged groceries in his hands lend a sense of the mundane, everyday ordinariness to a moment that was anything but.
Banned in China, the image remains largely unrecognised by its country’s populace, despite representing that precise moment in history in the minds of the rest of the world better than any other. The identity and fate of its subject remains unknown.
The image was awarded the World Press Photo of the Year in 1989, but it almost never made it out of China.
Speaking to the NYT last week, Cole once again explained how he smuggled the film from the Beijing Hotel, the building which overlooks Changan Avenue (the Avenue of Eternal Peace), where he took the photograph.
It’s one of my favourite stories of photojournalism and, while I’m a few days late in marking its twentieth anniversary, it’s always worth repeating.
“After taking the picture of the showdown, I became concerned about the PSB’s surveillance of our activities on the balcony. I was down to three rolls of film, with two cameras. One roll held the tank encounter, while the other had other good pictures of crowd and PLA confrontations and of wounded civilians at a hospital.
I replaced the final unexposed roll into the one of the cameras, replacing the tank roll, and reluctantly left the other roll of the wounded in the other camera. I felt that if the PSB searched the room or caught me, they would look even harder if there was no film in the cameras.
I then placed the tank roll in a plastic film can and wrapped it in a plastic bag and attached it to the flush chain in the tank of the toilet. I hid my cameras as best I could in the room. Within an hour, the PSB forced their way in and started searching the room. After about five minutes, they discovered the cameras and ripped the film out of each, seemingly satisfied that they had neutralized the coverage. They then forced me to sign a confession that I had been photographing during martial law and confiscated my passport.
Sometime later, I was able to return to the room and retrieve the film, which I took over to the A.P. office and developed. Afterwards, David Berkwitz, who had been sent to Beijing as the Newsweek photo tech-photographer, transmitted the picture to Newsweek in time for our deadline.”