The most respectable trait a person can have is the capability to stand up for what they believe in and fight for their right no matter what the situation is. The “Tank Man”, also known as the “Unknown Protestor” or “Unknown Rebel” possessed this honorable quality. The world-renowned photograph of him confronting a column of tanks in the Tiananmen Square in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 was captured by Jeff Widener from the balcony of the Beijing Hotel in China where Widener was hiding from the Chinese authorities.
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The true identity of the man, who can be seen standing up to armored vehicles at least sixteen times bigger than himself, remains unknown to this day. The man, however, has become a lasting symbol of will, determination and heroism. The most salient aspect of the image which is featured is how the composition accentuates the courage of the man who stands before the pickle-colored military tanks with red stars on them. The color of his shirt – white, which is symbolic of peace, goodness, and positivity contrasts with that of the tanks which seem to merge with the surroundings and appear rather negative; The ‘emptiness’ of the image which consists of the Tiananmen Square street, the top portion of the street light and the mighty tanks draws the attention of the audience towards the relatively miniscule man and makes him stand out from the rest. The man, in a way, is the brightest element of the image which comprises of black, grey, and earthy tones. Furthermore, the angle from which the camera captured the man plays a crucial role in persuading us to take sides as soon as we look at the image. We get to evaluate the situation from the perspective of the man who would’ve seemed dwarfed in size by the enormous tanks had the photograph been shot from the street level; Moreover, the slightly raised angle of the image helps us understand the plight of the lone man in a way that even though we’re aware of how the man is half the size of the tanks, he has still managed to assert his wishes against the Chinese authorities. As stated in The New York Times, “The man stood only half as tall as the lead tank. But his body language made it clear: He wanted the slow-moving column halted, and halt it did,”.
Although the posture of the man seems a little tense as if he can sense the complexity of the situation between him and the military giants, one can feel the calmness of the picture. The tanks, although looking ready and positioned to move seem to have stopped to show that they do not wish to kill him and the stance of the man who has shopping bags in both his hands doesn’t look threatening or aggressive in any way. The inferiority of the man who valiantly defies the tanks belonging to the Chinese military, however, adds pathos to the image and appeals to the emotions of the viewers, making them rather nervous about his fate; Did the solitary protester survive or did he meet a tragic end? Was this his “certain doom” as believed by the photographers present in the Tiananmen Square at that remarkable moment? His bravery to face up to an opposition which could crush him to death in seconds inspires the audience to identify the extent they would go to, to fight for what matters to them and invites their sympathies for the man who dared to go against an authority which killed thousands of innocent civilians just like him days ago and has now become a figure of utmost fearlessness. Had we not known where and when the photograph was captured, we could have various interpretations of what could have happened. For example, one could regard the man as an ordinary tourist, holding shopping bags in both his hands, admiring a convoy of tanks. This interpretation could be supported by the fact that the streets around the tanks are empty and thus the tanks might be placed there for public display; Moreover, a protest might not even be the first thought that would come to one’s mind when looking at the image as the man is standing alone and looks rather casual as he’s holding shopping bags instead of posters or banners which represent protests. Thus, knowing the backstory of the image helps us connect the dots and analyse how it evokes emotions of patriotism.
What is said to be “an iconic picture of defiance in the face of aggression” raises many questions in the audience’s mind; Who is this man? Why is he trying to resist a seemingly insuperable enemy? Did he survive the consequences of his actions? What did he wish to achieve by holding up an entire column of Chinese military tanks all alone? Did the photograph really show us everything that was to be seen? Although the vagueness of this picture makes it impossible for one’s curiosity to not lurk, one cannot miss the enormity of the Tank Man’s actions, thus making the photograph one of the most influential images of all time.
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