TIME China

Tank Man at 25: Behind the Iconic Tiananmen Square Photo

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In the spring of 1989, Jeff Widener was working for the Associated Press in Beijing, where political turmoil around student protests was escalating.

On June 4, the Chinese government cracked down hard, killing some students who had gathered in Tiananmen Square. The next morning, Widener was dispatched to the unfolding chaos. With film rolls stuffed down his pants and camera equipment hidden in his jacket, he made his way to a sixth-floor room of a hotel on the edge of the plaza.

Then suddenly, something caught his attention: A column of tanks rolling by, and a man carrying shopping bags, who had just stepped out in front of them.

“I assume he thinks he’s going to die,” remembers Widener. “But he doesn’t care, because for whatever reason—either he’s lost a loved one or he’s just had it with the government, or whatever it is—his statement is more important than his own life.”

The result is an iconic picture of defiance in the face of aggression. “I was just relieved that I didn’t mess up,” says Widener, whose photograph appeared on the front pages of newspapers the next day from New York to London and has been known since as one of the greatest news photographs of all time.

Read more: Tank Man at 25: Behind the Iconic Tiananmen Square Photo – LightBox.

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