Tiananmen Square and The Iconic Image

What would Jeff Widener, a renowned photojournalist, say to the man whom his photograph immortalized? In the iconic image, the Chinese citizen, whose fate to this day is unknown, blocks the path of a procession of tanks in what remains a defining moment of the June 5th, 1989 Tiananmen Square aftermath. “I would ask him,” says Widener, “what finally carried him over the top emotionally? Had he lost a loved one in the military crackdown? Was it a planned case of defiance or had he just been broken down to the point that he no longer feared for his own personal safety?”

If not for the photographs, that of Widener along with the other journalists present that day, the man’s signal act of defiance might have been lost along with much else of the historical record, as the Chinese government sought to whitewash the fact of the six-week student-led protest, to propagate amnesia in the name of nationalism. But Widener happened to be there, one beat photographer among many, risking life and limb to capture events as they happened, and it was his image that the AP ultimately picked up, soon to be seared into minds around the globe.

Roger Cohen of the NY Times recently quoted Chinese researcher Shi Guoliang in the observation that, “students [at Beijing’s China Youth University for Political Sciences] don’t do sit-ins, they blog and use Twitter.” Faced with a vastly improved economic prognosis, Chinese youth twenty years later seem content to keep their dissident thoughts anonymous on the margins of the internet. Yet the power of Widener’s image abides, one individual standing over and against the iron fist of oppression, in a country where individualism has no ostensible platform.

Will that change? “You will see such images used more and more to make political statements as well as increase social awareness for all of us as humans,” says Widener. In ways obvious and subtle. Widener considers an image of Pope John Paul II stifling a yawn during a ceremony at St. George’s Cathedral in London, to be among his most revealing, “the human side of a great man.”

Great man or no, the anonymous Chinese citizen may have made a more resonant statement. As of April 29, 2009, The National reports that government censorship of English language accounts of the 1989 Tiananmen protests have been eased for the first time in mainland China.

About Jeff Price: Price is a New York based writer whose professional works focus on culture, politics and the big city lifestyle.

Author: Jeff

J.T. Price has published fiction in Floodwall, The Potomac, Electric Literature, and Opium Magazine. His nonfiction appears in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Daily Beast, The Brooklyn Rail, The Tottenville Review, The Millions, and elsewhere. See more at alwaysisalwaysnow.blogspot.com or contact him here: jt_price at hotmail dot com.

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