June 5, 2012 12:30 PM EDT

Almost 25 years ago, Jeff Widener ran out of film during the most important assignment of his life.

The brutal crackdown at Tiananmen Square was underway and Widener, a photographer for the Associated Press, was sent to the square to capture the scene. “I rode a bicycle to the Beijing Hotel,” Widener says. “Upon my arrival, I had to get past several Chinese security police in the lobby. If they stopped and searched me, they would have found all my gear and film hidden in my clothes.” But there, in the shadows of the hotel entrance, he saw a long-haired college kid wearing a dirty Rambo t-shirt, shorts and sandals. “I yelled out, ‘Hi Joe! Where you been?’ and then whispered that I was from AP.” Widener remembers. He asked to go to the young man’s room. “He picked up on it,” says Widener, “and out of the corner of my eye I could see the approaching security men turn away, thinking I was a hotel guest.”

The young man was an American. His name was Kirk Martsen.

Martsen told Widener that he was lucky to arrive when he did. Just a few minutes earlier, some hotel guests had been shot by a passing military truck full of Chinese soldiers. Martsen said hotel staff members had dragged the bodies back in the hotel and that he had barely escaped with his life. From a hotel balcony, Widener was able to take pictures with a long lens—but then he ran out of film. So he sent Martsen on a desperate hunt for more, and Martsen returned with one single roll of Fuji color negative. It was on this film that Widener captured one of the most iconic images in history, the lone protester facing down a row of Chinese tanks.

“After I made the image, I asked Kirk if he could smuggle my film out of the hotel on his bicycle to the AP office at the Diplomatic Compound,” Widener says. “He agreed to do this for me as I had to stay in the hotel and wait for more supplies and could not risk being found out. I watched Kirk from my balcony, which was right over the area where the security was. In what seemed to be an eternity, Kirk unlocked his bike and started to pedal off, although a bit awkwardly because all my film was stashed in his underwear. Five hours later, a call to Mark Avery at the AP office in Beijing confirmed that the film had arrived and been transmitted world-wide. What I did not know until 20 years later was what actually transpired after Kirk pedaled the bicycle away.”

On the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, I wrote an article detailing each story behind the four different versions of the iconic scene on the Lens blog of the New York Times. At the time of publication, Widener wasn’t sure if the young man’s name was Kirk or Kurt. Soon after, Widener says, that changed: “I was on the computer and that familiar ‘You’ve Got Mail’ rang out on AOL. I could not believe who it was from. After 20 years, Kirk had found me because of the article in the New York Times.”

Widener discovered that Martsen encountered gunfire and more soldiers after he left with the precious film and that he became lost trying to navigate back streets to find the Associated Press office. Martsen went to the U.S. embassy and handed over the film to a U.S. Marine at the entrance, and told the embassy to forward the film to the AP office.

“Kirk risked his life,” Widener says. “If not for all of his efforts, my pictures may never have been seen.”

The next day, the image appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

Silicon Valley, the new software-business comedy (premieres April 6), is hardly the HBO series with the most or raunchiest profanity; that title is still, and may always be, held by Deadwood. But it is probably the HBO show to which the word “asshole” is most important. As used by the show’s titans and would-be Zuckerbergs, the word has myriad meanings to rival the Eskimo lexicon for “snow.” It’s a term of contempt: Radiohead, we are told, are “assholes” for the band’s positions on file-sharing. A programmer more focused on writing great code than monetizing it--a “Steve Wozniak” rather than a “Steve Jobs” in the show’s parlance--has “crawled up his own asshole.” A company without strong leadership suffers “an asshole vacuum.” But above all, in a business that values software over soft power, the word is practically an honorific: “That’s why he’s a billionaire,” a character says of an investor. “He knows how and when to be an asshole.” Silicon Valley is the funniest out-of-the-box pay cable comedy in a good while. (Veep, which returns the same night for its third season, is in the same league, but it took a good year to get there.) But its real strength is that it’s built on an idea that, however crude, is universal. Do you need to be an asshole to make it in this business? And if so: which kind? Those are the questions facing programmer Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) when a sudden business opportunity hits him like an Angry Bird. By day, Richard works on the Ikea-chic campus of software giant Hooli. On his own time, he’s bunking and coding in the “Hacker Hostel,” a rental house turned “startup incubator” run by the sketchy Erlich (T.J. Miller). In the process of building Pied Piper, an elegant but unsellable music-sharing service, he almost inadvertently creates a data-compression algorithm that could revolutionize the business. Hooli’s founder Gavin Belson (Big Love’s Matt Ross, in a deliciously arrogant turn) offers to buy him out for $10 million; Gavin’s eccentric VC rival, Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch, who died during the series' filming), offers a smaller stake that would let Richard keep the company. Behind Door #1: certain riches and possible crushing regret. Behind Door #2: the chance to be a Zuckerberg or a has-been. Silicon Valley comes from Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill)--who did a stint as an engineer in the Valley in the late ‘80s--along with co-creators John Altschuler and Dave Krinskey. It has more in common with Judge’s movies than his TV projects. The white-collar humor echoes his cult hit Office Space; its sprawling offices and the garish new-money parties have the calculated, flat ugliness of Idiocracy, which used a deliberate anti-aesthetic to portray a big-boxed future in which taste was dead. Its California landscapes are as plain as Enlightened and Looking’s are honeyed and luminous. Judge (who directs half the episodes) gives us the promised land as beige box, designed for functionality. Richard is the kind of guy Beavis and Butt-Head would laugh at and Hank Hill would drop-kick out of his propane store, a mop-topped brain attached to a few pipe cleaners and a hoodie. But the terrific Middleditch makes him more than an asocial Poindexter--he’s fidgety and unconfident, but also empathetic and principled. Pied Piper to him is not just a chance at billions but a chance to be alternative to Gavin (who employs a guru to tell him that hating his enemies is “a tool for great change”). Richard wants to bring the world insanely great things without driving everyone around him insane. But he'll need to handle himself in a shark tank where he suddenly has the smell of money on him, and he'll need to learn to manage his motley startup crew, including sardonic coder Dinesh (Kumail Nanjani), acerbic Satanist Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), and Richard’s sweet but untalented best friend Big Head (Josh Brener). You’ll notice all the male names there. Hardware-wise, the show is a definite dongle-fest; the only significant recurring female character in the early going is Peter’s head of operations Monica (Amanda Crew). But its very, very male world presents a very, very different take on masculinity from Entourage, whose bros sampled from an endless sushi-conveyor-belt of hot Hollywood women. Silicon Valley's is a culture of man-children, misfits, and macho “brogrammers"; among the apps one entrepreneur creates is NipAlert, for detecting--well, just what you'd think, reminiscent of the actual sexist gag app TitStare unveiled at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference last year. The women aren’t subservient so much as they’re absent, or isolated. Noting the separation between the sexes at a lavish party, Dinesh notes, “Every party in Silicon Valley ends up like a Hasidic wedding.” The show starts sharp and only gets richer (in an encouraging sign, the pilot was the weakest of five episodes I saw). And it has ideas beyond just being timely. This Valley has lived through several generations in time-lapse. (The opening titles show a landscape of offices and logos rising and falling, as in SimCity--Facebook going up, Napster going down.) It has sudden, vast power, and it knows it. And it sometimes wears that power arrogantly and ridiculously, or both at once, as when Peter gives a sneering TED Talk dismissing college as “snake oil,” then drives off in an electric car so absurdly narrow it can slip between two parked ones. But ridiculous power is power nonetheless, and part of Silicon Valley’s strength is in showing how the locus of cultural cred has shifted. The big showbiz dreams of Vincent Chase and pals in Entourage look puny beside the empire-building of Hooli. That’s cemented in the opening scene, where Kid Rock entertains a listless crowd at the party for a barely postpubescent host whose start-up just sold to Google for over $200 million. Kid Rock, Erlich says, is just about the poorest guy in the room. To paraphrase The Social Network’s Sean Parker, being a millionaire isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? It’s Richard’s job to figure that out for himself.
Courtesy Jeff Widener

Years later, the BBC flew Widener back to China to revisit the Square where he made the iconic photo. While walking down Changan Avenue toward the square, Widener met a German teacher sitting on the sidewalk smoking. Widener introduced himself and they had lunch. They were married in July 2010. “If anyone had told me that I would return from that bullet-riddled street 20 years later to meet my future wife, I would have thought them nuts,” Widener says. “Fate has a strange sense of humor.”

Jeff Widener is an award-winning American photographer. See more of his work here.

More Must-Read Stories From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com.

You May Also Like