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Remembering Photojournalist Charlie Cole

September 13, 2019

It is fair to say that journalists, as a group, get high praise on this blog.  Higher praise than any other group.  I value their work, deeply respect their profession, and learn daily from their reports be it a few blocks away at our state capital or thousands of miles away in an international setting.    I have often stated those who report the news and inform the world are far more important for the sake of democracy than the military who are sworn to defend us.

That is surely true for American photojournalist Charlie Cole.  His career will forever be associated with the iconic photograph of the “Tank Man”, the Chinese office worker facing down a column of tanks during the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.  Cole died at the age of 64.

Cole was one of four cameramen who took similar shots of the scene – his taken with a telephoto lens from a Beijing Hotel balcony – but it was his tight framing of the event that is believed to have won him the 1989 World Press Photo of the Year award.


Cole later recalled watching the man in a white shirt walk into the center of Changan Avenue as the armored vehicles approached: “I kept shooting in anticipation of what I felt was his certain doom. But to my amazement, the lead tank stopped, then tried to move around him.”

Eventually, Public Security Bureau agents intervened and hurried the man away. Even to this day, the identity and fate of the “tank man” are still not clear and the image remains largely blocked on the internet in China.

Which underscores why reporters matter in conveying truth.

Cole regretted that the Tank Man image alone became iconic of the Tiananmen tragedy, in the same way as the Saigon rooftop evacuation shot by Dutchman Hugh van Es became symbolic of the end of the Vietnam war in 1975.  I suspect he might have said that same for the photo of Kim Phúc, then nine-years-old, who ran down a road near her village in South Vietnam, following an aerial napalm attack, when AP journalist Nick Ut took a photograph.  Those two now-famous individuals were in Madison earlier this year, as I blogged about in June.

Close friends never heard him breathe a word about the award because, in his view, it overshadowed the work and the risks taken by other photographers during the crackdown against the demonstrators in the square that day.

That is what we call a man of character.  We have a shortage of such people in our world.

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