Stuart Franklin: ‘It was a David and Goliath moment’

When world renowned photographer Stuart Franklin was standing on a crowded balcony five stories up from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, pointing his camera at a man standing defiant in front of a row of Chinese tanks, he thought he was too far away from the action.

But 25 years after that iconic day on 5 June 1989, the picture has become the ultimate symbol of the power of an individual against the might of the state.

This is how it happened.

From “Woodstock” to crackdown

Stuart had arrived in Beijing a week before the Chinese government’s scandalous crackdown on a group of peaceful students on the night of 3 June 1989.

His editor at the photo agency Magnum knew that what had started as a student hunger strike in Beijing’s main square back in April that year was developing into something of historical proportions. Stuart was assigned the job.

“I really wanted to go. I knew that what was happening was serious because in China defying the state was a pretty serious thing to do,” Stuart said from his home in South London.

The photographer arrived in the Chinese capital with little more than a backpack and his cameras, rented a bike and began touring the city. He was trying to make sense of the unprecedented events taking place around him.

“It was extraordinary. When I arrived, the atmosphere was of a kind of ‘Chinese Woodstock’. Although there were hunger strikers in a tent, there were also talks and music. It had a kind of rock festival feeling to it,” he said.

But things quickly turned somber and when the tanks showed up, it was clear the Chinese authorities were going to take decisive action.

“Things changed when the military moved in on the 1 and 2 June. Then the atmosphere grew darker. They started firing shots, people were killed, and then gradually the crackdown began.”

Tank Man

No one knows exactly how many people were killed when the Chinese army crushed the students, union leaders and city dwellers protesting in Tiananmen Square on 3 and 4 June.

And no one expected what happened later.

As the sun rose on the morning of Monday 5 June 1989, Stuart rushed to the balcony of the Beijing Hotel, across the road from Tiananmen Square. There foreign correspondents had gathered to witness the latest developments down below.

And then they saw him.

A man wearing a white shirt and dark trousers walked in front of a row of tanks on Chang’an Avenue, armed with nothing but two carrier bags.

He moved from side to side to stop them from moving forward. The tanks moved with him.

“We were incredibly surprised. I would have expected to see the tank, very slowly but gradually pushing forward. The fact that the tank didn’t do that and danced around and started to negotiate with the man was extremely surprising,” Stuart said.

“It was a David and Goliath moment. He was really quite small in front of a large tank and it gave the impression of the influence of a single man in controlling the power of the state.”

Stuart pressed the shutter of his camera with excitement, just as he had done many times earlier during the protests, capturing the mood of events that are rarely seen in China.

“When I took that picture, what was going through my mind was that I was miles away, too far away. I thought I wish I was closer, I wish I was on the street. I had flashes of memories of really extraordinary photographs like those of the Czechs demonstrating in front of Russian Tanks that moved into Prague in 1968. I was thinking oh dear, I’m miles away, this isn’t going to be terribly interesting,” he said while looking at the series of images he took 25 years ago.

“Did you get the picture?”

The next day, as he was trying to leave Beijing with his film smuggled in a French TV producer’s tin of tea, Stuart got a call from his news editor at Magnum in Paris, who only said: “Did you get the picture of the man in front of the tank?”

And it was then that Stuart knew the image that was going to illustrate those days for years to come.

“We didn’t have TV in Beijing so we didn’t know how big that image had gone. The event was flashed all over the world by the BBC and other news gatherers. People saw these images of a man literally dancing in front of a tank, holding it back, stopping it and that’s what became iconic,” Stuart explained.

“If it would have happened today, everybody would have been tweeting about it. Everybody would have had that photo. If I had to sum up this shot in one word it would be courage. It defined one man’s extraordinary courage to stand up in front or a row of tanks, sacrificing his own life for the sake of social justice as he saw.”