On June 5, 1989, one day after China’s government began violently cracking down on protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, a lone man, dressed in black pants and a white shirt, decided to take action against an approaching line of military tanks, en route to suppress protestors.
In an act of nonviolent protest, the man, who to this day remains unidentified, calmly walked in front of the procession of tanks, forcing the lead tank to halt. As the tank tried to move around him, the man repeatedly shifted his position, continuing to block the progress of the tanks and creating a symbolic gesture of opposition that still holds power today.
Friday marks the 26th anniversary of that day, that man’s actions, and the famous photograph of him that shocked the world.
Photographer Stuart Franklin, a contributing member Magnum, a famous photojournalist and photographer collective, was there, shooting from a balcony at the Beijing Hotel.
The following day, after his roll of film was smuggled out of China in a packet of tea and delivered to the Magnum offices in Paris, the “Tank Man” image appeared on front pages everywhere. Three other photographers also snapped the scene, but Franklin’s image is arguably the most iconic, having appeared in Time and Life magazines, and winning him a World Press Award.
25 years later, the iconic image is back in the spotlight. Franklin’s contact sheet — a piece of photographic paper containing thumbnails of all the exposures from a specific roll of film — was recently part of Magnum’s show of famous contact sheets at Manhattan’s Milk Gallery.
The sheets, which were used by photographers and photo editors to make image selections before computers and digital photography rendered them obsolete, are treasure troves of information. They show outtakes and behind-the-scenes images from a specific photoshoot or event, helping the viewer to gain a better sense of the process and the mindset of the photographer.
Franklin’s contact sheet from Tiananmen Square contains multiple slide exposures taken from a balcony of the Beijing Hotel, giving us a new perspective on the event and photographic process.
(Double click to zoom in and explore the contact sheet in more detail, or click here for an enlarged version on mobile.)
The exposures show “Tank Man” entering the fray and standing in front of the tank before finally being grabbed and moved out of the scene by others. We can also see where Stuart takes a risk and rushes back into his hotel room to change out his lens for a closer shot.
Take a closer look at some of the exposures. Here, we see the tanks beginning their march towards the Square.
“Tank Man” enters the frame.
Here’s the image that made it to the front page of newspapers around the world.
Finally, thanks to the contact sheet, we can see Tank Man being escorted away by others. Who they were is still a topic of debate.
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