“Jeff Widener is best known for his now famous image of a lone man confronting a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 Beijing riots which made him a nominated finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer. The “Tank Picture,” repeatedly circulated around the globe, (except in China where it is banned) is now widely held to be one of the most recognized photos ever taken. America On Line selected it as one of the top ten most famous images of all time.”
Sincere thanks to Jeff Widener for agreeing to this interview.
SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH JEFF WIDENER
Musa Askari: STILL IMAGE: I would like to begin by enquiring generally on the idea of the “still image”. From the earliest cave paintings of hand stencils to Narcissus’s reflection in a pool of water. From Emily Davison bravery in 1913 to conflicts and war zones. From the freedom marches of India, United States and South Africa to “The Tank Man” of Tiananmen Square. Humanity appears to have a fixation with the “still image” and images of the image. With dramatic changes in technology from the earliest cameras to digital cameras on mobile phones the ability to capture and share instantaneously flashes of meaning and context, for better or worse, from propaganda to oppress to solidarity movements to liberate, one of the first instincts is to record the event via a photograph.
Why in your view has the idea of the “still image” remained so strong, intact and unchanged as an idea, while all about it the means to capture images has changed through developments in technology? Is our technological quest for picture/image clarity disguising something deeper within the psyche of humanity, the search for “clarity” itself, of our place in the world? I wonder is this the invisible and intangible still centre to which we gravitate in those iconic images which seem to not only draw but hold our attention? Some may even refer to this tug upon our senses as the work of artistry itself, that something becomes clear to us about ourselves.
Jeff Widener: What matters the most with a still image is how the visual experience can trigger an emotional response from the viewer. No matter how far technology advances photography, it is still the final image that speaks. When a photograph can make you cry, laugh or take your thoughts back to a past lover or a song from an earlier time then the photograph has succeeded. A photograph should be felt and not viewed. When the picture still resonates in your mind for weeks onward then something magical has been happened. Far too many photographers concern themselves with the technical side of photography rather then feeling the pulse around them. To capture the soul of your subject you must be able to bond with your subject.
Musa Askari: TIME: Today it takes less than a second to capture a photograph. I compare this with the time of extended reflection one may take when later pondering its meaning. In order to avoid losing touch with the depth of meaning and resonance from being lost it seems we desire the “still image”. Is this what may be referred to as time having stood still in a photograph? What have you found to be the power of the “still image” and how does it convey what more than a thousand words may never do?
Jeff Widener: The brain seems to have an easier time storing a single image than a video for example. Why this is so is best left to the scientific community however in my many years as a photographer has shown me that people just recall still images much better than motion cameras.
Musa Askari: PHOTO-JOURNALISM: Would you agree the important work of a photo-journalist involves “bearing witness”? Being the “eyes” for a world that may choose to look the other way. That through them we are also able to “bear witness”. Is it the case on some level a photo-journalist brings through them the most fragile of things, namely conscience, placing it right within the heart of a conflict zone for example? Bearing witness through the physical eye having first borne witness through the inner discerning eye of conscience. With the aid of modern revolutions in information technology is photo-journalism the harbinger of a time when it will be no longer credible to say we do not know about one crisis or another and thus critically faced with a central issue about ourselves, why we did not ask or enquire?
Jeff Widener: Technology has had a profound impact on our daily lives. So much news bombards us every day that I believe it is sensory overload. That said, we as the human race have no choice but to keep up with what is happening in the world. The problem is not that there is so much news reported but the increasing censorship by governments which seems to be ever increasing in all parts of the world including Europe and the United States. One of my biggest concerns is the tightening laws involving street photography. There is a real risk that future generations will have very little idea how their ancestors lived. There may be virtually no candid images of children. Society has become overly paranoid with the internet which makes documenting humanity a serious challenge.
Musa Askari: TANK MAN: It seems to me highly unlikely the brave soul we have come to know through your image of him would hardly have been aware of anyone recording his defiance through a still image or video, let alone aware of the name he would come to be known by to the world at large beyond the boulevard upon which he stood. In that sense his singular protest takes on much greater significance. An embodiment of the principle of having witnessed himself injustice and suffering all about him one is called to “act”. To not act in that instant in some form had perhaps become unthinkable for him. His actions speak for themselves – they speak beyond themselves.
Having taken the most widely circulated photograph of the “Tank Man” how do you feel the importance of that image/event has fluctuated over the last two decades or so? Does an image have to remain forever popular, in the collective consciousness, for it to retain its iconic status? Or is an “icon” something transcending history – in other words would you agree it has a “timeless” quality, a spiritual quality even in the sense of transcending cultural and national boundaries making the powerful example of “The Tank Man” identifiable with struggles universally?
From my interview with acclaimed documentary film-maker Antony Thomas I ask about his film on “The Tank Man”. Did he agree there were perhaps two “Tank Men” that day. He responds as follows, “Yes. I certainly remember the powerful emotions I felt when I first saw that image of a young man, standing in front of that column of tanks, and I completely agree with the point you make. There were two heroes that day – one unseen inside the lead tank, and one standing in the road with his back to us. I’m afraid it’s likely that both of them shared the same fate.”
In conclusion I would like to return to the earlier reference of “bearing witness”. As one who stood on that balcony that fateful day, as an eye witness to the “Event” of a powerful expression of individual resistance, I would be deeply grateful if you could share your thoughts on what emotions you were going through at that moment? Would you also agree we need to recognise there were perhaps two “Tank Men” at that moment of encounter?
Jeff Widener: The Tank Man event was quite shocking however at the time I was suffering from a sever concussion from a stray protestor rock that had smashed into my face. My Nikon F3 titanium camera absorbed the blow sparing my life. So for this reason, the Tank Man moment just seemed like a continuation of the previous night’s events. It was only after several months that the importance of the image settled in. Sometimes being a journalist numbs you to the world. My job as the Associated Press Photo Editor for Southeast Asia was extremely demanding with almost non stop action and danger. I witnessed horrific events in Cambodia, Philippines, Sri Lanka. It now seems that years later, many of these things that I have documented are just now being fully realized. At the time of my photographing Tank Man, I was extremely scared for my life. I was suffering from a sever case of the flu as well as the concussion but even with that, I was aware that something extraordinary was happening through my camera viewfinder. The lead tank driver must have known the consequences for stopping –so yes, there were two heroes that day.
*Photographs provided and published above with the generous permission of Jeff Widener. Please visit Jeff’s website for more information about his important work.