I have had this image in my head for about four or five years and the timing was just never quite right for it. Thankfully, since I’ve been working with the multi-talented Travis Weinand, I had the chance to do it the way I’d been picturing it for so long!
Are you all familiar with the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989? I’ll give you a rough summary of events. Some of the details still remain repressed though, such as the number of people actually killed, but I’ll do my best.
In April of 1989, the death of Hu Yaobang, the former Communist Party General Secretary triggered massive protests calling for political reform. The protests began peacefully and were led mostly by university students, who gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn and protest. This went on for several weeks and some of the students took to hunger strikes to express their desire for reform. Since the entire incident has been so thoroughly repressed, it’s hard to get an inside take on what was happening in the minds of the Chinese government – you can’t very well ask about an event which never officially happened.
However, after the protests went on for weeks and showed no signs of slowing, Chinese leaders decided force was called for to disperse the protesters. Marshall law was declared, approximately 250,000 troops were sent in; given permission to use lethal force if necessary.
And, as is so often the case, once lethal force has been approved, means for using it will be found.
By June 5th, the heavily outnumbered and out-armed protesters had been largely slaughtered. Exact numbers remain unknown; official records report 200-300 died; earlier reports fro the Chinese Red Cross on the morning of the 4th recorded 2,600 deaths, which was later retracted. Regardless, the students stood no chance against an armed and deadly militia with orders to make them go away, whatever it took.
And then we come to June 5th.
After weeks of unrest leading to a brutally bloody and deadly fever pitch, by the 5th, one man, at least, had had enough. As the tanks came rolling into the square to continue to get rid of the protestors, one man made his stand in a way which still shocks and awes people today.
With nothing more than a few shopping bags in his hands, he stood in the tanks’ path and forced them to stop. The tanks tried to maneuver around him, he stepped back in front of them. After the massacre he had surely witnessed over the past several days, this goes beyond mere heroism. This was fearlessness. He was angry, and no matter that the tanks could have kept rolling and ran him over, or they could have chosen to shoot him as soon as he came into view, he stood. And for minutes, a single man stopped an entire line of tanks.
At one point he even climbs on top of the tank, bangs on it and demands to speak to the person in charge. After a few minutes, a group of people, who seem to be protesters also, join him and hustle him out of the way, probably fearing, with good reason, for his life.
No one knows who this man is. The world has called him Tank Man, a fitting name. We don’t know what happened to him. Was he arrested, was he killed, or did he simply never know the incredible impact his act of sheer bravery had on the world? With the extend to which the massacre has been suppressed in China, it’s quite possible he never knew his act was recorded or that it became famous. I would love to know what happened to him, but so far no one has come forward claiming to be Tank Man or knowing who he is.
One man against a line of tanks. He knew the events of the days before and how deadly the protests had become. He knew that he would likely be shot or run over.
But his one act of peaceful, quiet defiance stopped an army.
That is what I wanted to celebrate in my image with Travis. I wrapped a mantle of white flowers around his shoulders, both to symbolize purity and peace, which we typically associate them with in America, and also for its association with death in the Chinese culture. I instructed Travis to be quietly, peacefully strong, but unshakeable, and rolled up a piece of craft foam into a tube to shoot the image through, as if you were looking down the barrel of the tank at him. I climbed a ladder to get a view where I’d be higher up than Travis (not as easy as you’d think since he’s so tall and I’m so short!) and shot away. Travis perfectly embodied the exact emotion and look that I’d asked for. It doesn’t get better than that.
I hope that Tank Man is alive and well. I hope that he knows the impact his defiance had on the world. I hope we discover some day who he is. Until then, he will be Tank Man, the many who stopped an army.