It has been two weeks of constant loss in the photo industry. First we lost Peter Lindbergh, then Robert Frank, and now Charlie Cole, the American photojournalist behind one of the four iconic Tank Man photos taken during the infamous 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, has also passed away. Cole was 64 years old.
Cole was born in Bonham, Texas. The son of a US Air Force chaplain, he grew up near Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, CO, and studied journalism at the University of Texas in Denton. After graduation, he moved back to Colorado Springs, where he secured a full-time position at the Colorado Springs Sun newspaper, before moving to Japan with fellow photographer Steve Gardner in 1980.
Over the next decade, Gardner and Cole would successfully establish themselves as freelance photojournalists, forming relationships with major publications. This is how Cole, who had developed a relationship with Newsweek in the mid-1980s, found himself in Beijing covering the pro-democracy student protests in Tiannanmen Square in May of 1989.
On Sunday June 4th, after being roughed up by the Chinese secret police, he took shelter in the Beijing Hotel. Many publications had been bringing their photographers home, as the protests seemed to be winding down, but Newsweek told Cole to stick around. The next day, on Monday June 5th, 1989, this happened:
Cole captured the 1990 World Press Photo-winning image that would come to define his career when he was just 34 years old, perched atop a balcony on one of the upper floors of the Beijing Hotel with a Nikon SLR and 300mm lens. As he watched on, he believed that the man would certainly be killed, and felt a duty to capture the moment for posterity. “To my amazement the lead tank stopped,” recalled Cole, “then tried to move around him.”
Knowing that the secret police would try to confiscate the image, he hid his undeveloped roll of film in the tank of his hotel room bathroom. When officials broke in to search the room, they didn’t find the film, and Cole was able to send his photo to the Associated Press bureau, where it was developed and transmitted to Newsweek.
As it turned out, four other photographers managed to capture almost identical images from slightly different perspectives—AP photographer Jeff Widener, Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin, and Reuters photographer Arthur Tsang:
As iconic as this photograph has become—both as a lasting document of a moment the Chinese government continues to try and erase from history, and as an enduring symbol of peaceful protest in the face of tyranny—Cole came to regret that the image has come to overshadow so much of the other imagery from the Tiananmen Square massacre.
“Jacques Langevin, Peter and David Turnley, Peter Charlesworth, Robin Moyer, David Berkwitz, Rei Ohara, Alon Reininger, Ken Jarecke and a host of others contributed to the fuller historical record of what occurred during this tragedy,” he told the New York Times in 2009. “We should not be lured into a simplistic, one-shot view of this amazingly complex event.”
In the same way, we hope that history will not boil Cole’s personality down into its own “simplistic, one-shot view.” As TODAY writes, he was more than the photojournalist behind one iconic image. He was a “talented and self-effacing [man], an aficionado of barbecue, bourbon and the blues,” with “an encyclopedic knowledge of the US Military.”
A man who ultimately laid credit for the Tank Man image at the feet of the Tank Man himself, telling the BBC in 2005: “He made the image; I just took the picture.”
Cole passed away last week in Bali, where he has lived for the pats 15 years.
Credits: Header image is a screenshot from the embedded news footage.