By Cassie Kelly
One of the most iconic photos ever taken, “Tank Man” depicts a man halting four tanks during China’s Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener shared his experience capturing this moment, and others like it, during his visit last week to Athens.
Before his position at AP, Widener worked for various newspapers across the country. He describes his career as a rollercoaster, going from paper to paper without much money in between. Nevertheless, he describes persevering through the ups and downs, always managing to keep in touch with Hal Buell, head of photography at AP.
Buell consistently kept in touch with Widener, telling him whether any positions opened up, but the timing had never been right. One day, however, recently unemployed Widener got a call from Buell. He told Widener there was a position available and asked if Widener could travel to the Philippines. Without hesitation, Widener said yes. In a quick turn of events the offer changed to a position in Bangkok, a place Widener had long-standing suspicions he would eventually end up.
“I just left the job at the LA Sun and I couldn’t afford a pack of gum. The next minute, I’m sipping champagne in the cabin of a 747 to Bangkok,” Widener said. “Just goes to show you how fast events in life can change.”
Widener worked with AP from 1987 until 1995 and considers his position there his greatest accomplishment. While getting dropped into dangerous situations with only his camera, Widener would take the most noteworthy photographs of his AP career, including “Tank Man.”
Widener specifically noted the ever-changing nature of his position – from being pampered in New York staying in five star hotels to flying to dangerous places like Sri Lanka, to shoot the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam riots. Soon enough he began to wonder how much longer he could live through all of the adventures.
“In fact, I started worrying about the fact that I might actually get killed,” Widener said.
When Widener looks back at Tiananmen, he said that while it has opened a lot of doors for him, he wants his legacy to be something greater.
“[I want] to be remembered for a body of work, not just a lucky shot,” Widener said. He is currently working on publishing his first book, which he plans to call “Beyond Tiananmen.”
“I’ve risked a lot in my life. I’d like people to know I was on the planet… Jeff Widener was here,” he added
Widener hopes his book will not only highlight his photos from Southeast Asia, including the Tiananmen uprising, but also depict his experiences while shooting those photos.
During Widener’s visit to Ohio University he explained to students that if they truly wanted something, it would happen for them.
“If you can get passed the obstacles and look at them as challenges and feel good about yourself when you get passed those challenges, than you are definitely going to make it,“ he said.
Widener sees media photography geared more toward quantity than quality these days, which he said he finds sad. He has watched new photojournalists being pressured to take catchy photos rather than capturing a moment or triggering an emotion through their images. His advice to photojournalists is to think visually and more carefully.
“You feel a picture, you don’t shoot it,” Widener said. “If your heart skips a beat, if it reminds you of a lover or an old song, than you succeeded.”
This visit was made possible by the School of Visual Communications, the Institute for International Journalism, particularly with the help of Dr. Bob Stewart, Director of the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.