Tank Man and the changing art of photojournalism at HKU

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 9:43am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 9:43am

"We're not trying to make a political statement, there's no agenda. We just want to show some remarkable examples of photojournalism," says Florian Knothe, director of the University Museum and Art Gallery at the University of Hong Kong.

Knothe is referring to the exhibition, "The Tank Man and the Changing Art and Craft of Photojournalism", a showcase of 12 images by US photographer Jeff Widener taken while covering the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown for Associated Press.

The most recognisable image in the collection is Tank Man, the image of a lone man with shopping bags who walks into the middle of Beijing's Chang'an Avenue to try and stop the advance of PLA tanks. The fate of the man is still a mystery. The incident has come to symbolise Tiananmen and is one of the most iconic news images of recent decades. The photo won the Scoop Award in France, the Chia Sardina Award in Italy and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

"While the Tank Man image is a great example of being in the right place at the right time, this show is also a chance to see more by Widener from that significant time," says Knothe.

One image shows soldiers and a tank standing guard in front of the Forbidden City, across from Tiananmen Square. Another was taken in the days leading up to the June 4 crackdown, with protesters sitting on a monument in the occupied Tiananmen Square. Another, taken late on the evening of June 3, shows protesters setting fire to an armoured personnel carrier on Chang'an Avenue. This picture was the last image Widener took before being struck in the face by a stray brick thrown by a protester. Though he sustained a serious concussion, his camera absorbed the blow and spared his life.

One other image shows two women sweeping debris next to a burned-out bus. The demonstrations led to the widespread burning of buses and military vehicles, which left several soldiers dead or injured.

Knothe says it is interesting how the images have become iconic. "Jeff documented a very important event and it's interesting to see how, over time, these images have become treasured documents."

While realising the historical importance of the images, Knothe says the show also has strong artistic elements. "The way they capture the light, the composition - it's interesting to look at them from an artistic perspective."

Knothe also says there was no opposition to staging the exhibition. "Nobody approached me to say don't do the show. The university is quite open and neutral … If anything we were congratulated for staging the show … I really hope the public is interested in seeing them; it really is one of the most iconic images related to this region."

"The Tank Man and the Changing Art and Craft of Photojournalism", Mon-Sat 9.30am-6pm, Sun 1pm-6pm, 2/F Fung Ping Shan Bldg, University Museum and Art Gallery, HKU. Ends Jun 29.

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