“It was odd: at the beginning, the Tiananmen Square demonstrations had an upbeat, almost rock festival feel. But then as the army moved in, it turned ugly. So the following morning, I was on the balcony in my hotel room on Chang’an Avenue in Beijing, about 150 metres from Tiananmen Square. I couldn’t leave the hotel, as Chinese security had occupied the lobby. It was a bit frustrating: having grown up with the Magnum ethos that if a picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough, I found myself looking on with quite a long lens.
I remember seeing a row of soldiers and a row of students facing each other at the entrance to the square. Then the tanks rolled forward, and this guy jumped out of the crowd and just did this whole dance in front of them. He jumped on and off the tank, and I was just photographing away.
To be honest, I was thinking that this wasn’t terribly interesting. But this guy from Vanity Fair was saying it was an iconic moment - a moment that history would remember. And I was going, “Really?” I didn’t get it. Photographically, it didn’t seem terribly interesting: the guy was really small. But I do think there is an energy to it - there is smoke coming out of one tank, as if they’re revving up to run him over. I saw two or three people in civilian clothes scoop him up and take him back into the crowd, which swallowed him up. He has not been seen or heard of since.
It was only after speaking to the Magnum office in Paris a couple of days later that I realised how important it was. They were saying: “This is amazing! You’ve got the tank man!” It’s always nice when you’re in the field and the office sound happy, which is rare.
Then Time magazine ran it big, and Life magazine ran it as a double page. It became an Amnesty International poster, up on every student wall. I was proud that it became so important to people. I’m not the only person who photographed the scene, so I wouldn’t say that mine was unique. But I’m not at all bored of talking about it.”
Stuart Franklin’s film was smuggled out in a packet of tea by a French student and delivered to the Magnum office in Paris.