How Photos of Tank Man Were Smuggled Out of China

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We've discussed the story of the Unknown Rebel (what little we know of it, anyway), but we may have never known of his heroic deed if the photographers who managed to document it hadn’t been fast on their feet.

Four photographers were watching the incident as it happened, and in 2009 the New York Times caught up with them.

Charlie Cole was on assignment for Newsweek and was standing on the balcony of the Beijing Hotel when he started snapping Tank Man. His actions didn’t go unnoticed - the Public Security Bureau burst into his room less than an hour later, demanding all cameras and film and turning the room inside out in their search for the damning evidence. Luckily, Cole was a step ahead of them: he had hidden the roll of film containing Tank Man in a waterproof bag in the toilet tank. Knowing the PSB would be suspicious if only empty rolls of film were found in the room, he sacrificed film of wounded people by placing it back in a camera.

His ploy worked - the PSB was satisfied with what they found. Although Cole was escorted out of the room, he was able to return later and scoop his historic images out of the toilet tank.

Stuart Franklin was working for Time during his Beijing trip in 1989.

He was on the same balcony with Charlie Cole, though his images are shot from a wider angle and contain the shell of a burned-out bus in the background. He managed to get his film out of the country by putting the negatives in a packet of tea and sending them out with a French student.

Jeff Widener, an AP Photographer, had an accomplice in getting his film past the authorities. Suffering from a concussion, Widener asked a college kid named Kurt or Kirk (he’s still not sure) to procure more film for him. After he returned with a low quality roll of film, Kurt/Kirk stuck around to see what would happen. After Widener took his shots, the student shoved the roll of film in his underwear and ran for the A.P. office in Beijing. Because of his appearance (“the long-haired college kid was wearing a dirty Rambo t-shirt, shorts and sandals,” Widener once said) no one knew he was the accomplice of a journalist and never thought to question him.

The fourth photographer, Arthur Tsang Hin Wah, from Reuters, has a slightly less harrowing tale. After he shot his film, a colleague simply rode over on a bike and took the roll before PSB could come questioning.

This article originally appeared last year.

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