Photographer Charlie Cole, who won the World Press Photo of the Year in 1999 for his iconic capture of the Chinese “tank man” who confronted military vehicles in Tiananmen Square in 1989, has died at the age of 64.
Cole was one of four photographers who captured the scene, which became a defining image of the months-long clashes between China’s military and protesters. Chinese authorities say that around 200 civilians and several dozen officers died in the Communist Party’s bloody crackdown, though others have suggested the death toll was at least 10,000.
The image was captured on June 5, 1989, the day after armed troops were sent into central Beijing and were instructed to “use any means” to suppress pro-democracy protests who had been occupying the square for weeks. Soldiers fired indiscriminately at crowds, killing and injuring hundreds.
Around midday, a column of tanks drove down Cang’an Boulevard near Tiananmen Square. Video footage of the incident shows the military procession coming to a halt as a man, unidentified to this day, confronts the tanks in the middle of an empty street. The tanks try to avoid the man, who again blocks their path. Moments later, he climbed onto the hull of one of the tanks before he hops down and was dragged away by two unknown figures.
Cole was there on assignment for Newsweek. The Texas native told The New York Times, in a 2009 profile on photographers who captured the defining moment, that he and fellow photographer Stuart Franklin were on the balcony of the Beijing Hotel when they saw a line of at least 20 Armored Personnel Carriers clearing the streets before the showdown between the unknown man and the tanks took place.
“As the tanks neared the Beijing Hotel, the lone young man walked toward the middle of the avenue waving his jacket and shopping bag to stop the tanks. I kept shooting in anticipation of what I felt was his certain doom. But to my amazement, the lead tank stopped, then tried to move around him,” he said.
Cole told the Times that after taking the photo, he was concerned that Chinese security forces may have been surveilling his activities, and he knew he needed to hide the roll of film that contained the one-in-a-lifetime shot.
He placed the tank film inside a plastic can and wrapped it in a plastic bag before attaching it to the flush chain inside the toilet’s tank. Reluctantly, he placed his other film, including photographs he had taken of confrontations between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and crowds, inside his camera, anticipating that the security would soon ransack his room and become suspicious if his camera contained no film.
“Within an hour, the PSB (Public Security Bureau) forced their way in and started searching the room,” he said. “After about five minutes, they discovered the cameras and ripped the film out of each, seemingly satisfied that they had neutralized the coverage. They then forced me to sign a confession that I had been photographing during martial law and confiscated my passport.”
When they left, he salvaged his film from the toilets, which he was able to develop and send over to Newsweek in time for his deadline. He said he regretted that the image alone had become so symbolic of the massacre, considering that there were so many other crucial moments captured on film, and so many journalists and photographers had put their lives on the line to cover the events.
“We should not be lured into a simplistic, one-shot view of this amazingly complex event,” he said.
The photograph, and other references to the brutal crackdown, are heavily censored in China to this day.
Cole had moved to Japan in 1980, according to South China Morning Post, and established himself as a freelancer. He traveled around Asia and covered several pivotal moments in history including the 1985 Philippine people’s power uprising and student uprising in South Korea.
He was injured in a motorcycle accident in Tokyo in the mid-1990’s, which halted his career. He moved from Tokyo to Jakarta, then to Bali where he had been a resident for the last 15 years or so, according to the Post.