American photojournalist Charlie Cole, whose 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
, died in Bali last week.
Cole, 64, a Bali resident for more than 15 years, 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 centre of Changan Avenue as the armoured 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.
“I think his action captured peoples’ hearts everywhere and when the moment came, his character defined the moment, rather than the moment defining him,” Cole once told The New York Times. “He made the image. I was just one of the photographers. And I felt honoured to be there.”
Worried about security men searching his room, he wrapped the roll of film in plastic and attached it to the flush chain of the toilet tank. When they did come, they found his cameras, ripped the film out and left, seemingly satisfied they had neutralised the problem – as Cole had intended.
Retrieved from its hiding place, the film was later developed at the Associated Press bureau and transmitted to Newsweek in time for deadline by a photo tech-photographer who had flown in from the magazine’s Tokyo office.
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.
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.
Born in Bonham, Texas, talented and self-effacing, an aficionado of barbecue, bourbon and the blues, Cole graduated in journalism from the University of Texas in Denton in 1978, his career in the news business already mapped out for him.
When his father, a chaplain in the US Air Force, was posted to Japan, he moved back to Colorado Springs where he had grown up while the elder Cole was stationed at nearby Paterson airbase, which was the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defence Command.
The contacts he developed through his father helped him with some unique assignments over the years and gave him an encyclopedic knowledge of the US military, from its history to its hardware and operations across the Pacific theatre.
Shortly after graduation, Cole parlayed stringing work for the wire agencies into a full-time job on the Colorado Springs Sun newspaper, even then becoming a consistent National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) award winner.
In August 1980, he and close friend Steve Gardner flew to Japan, looking to establish themselves as freelancers in a region going through significant economic and political change. It was the last great era of old school journalism.
Using joint photo exhibitions as a unique method of picking up work, they soon found that being English-speaking photographers working around Japan and Asia was their strongest point as they sought to break into the magazine market.
They spent 1984-85 as specialist photographers travelling to military bases around Japan and the Pacific, an experience that drew Cole into a strong working relationship with Newsweek, which he maintained throughout his career.
He was in Manila for the 1985 Philippine people’s power uprising, and then moved to South Korea to cover the three years of often violent student demonstrations that led to the country’s swift transition to democratic rule.
Cole’s news career came to an abrupt halt in the mid-1990s when his Harley Davidson struck an open car door as he rode through Tokyo. His left leg was shattered and for a long while it was touch and go whether it would have to be amputated.
He subsequently moved from Tokyo to Jakarta and then on to Bali where he built a villa with his Indonesian wife, Rosanna, eventually making a quiet living doing commercial photography. He was in constant pain, but he rarely showed it.
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