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He Took an Iconic Pic, Then Hid the Film in the Toilet

Charlie Cole snapped one of the historic shots in China's Tiananmen Square in June 1989
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 13, 2019 10:55 AM CDT
In this June 5, 1989, file photo, a Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks Tiananmen Square. Jeff Widener took this photo, one of four photographers, along with Charlie Cole, to capture the...   (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, File)

(Newser) – As Charlie Cole stood on a hotel balcony overlooking Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989, a a stunning sight unfolded before his eyes. A man on the street below defiantly placed himself directly in front of a line of Chinese military tanks sent to disrupt the pro-democracy protests there, and Cole worried the man might be killed, per the BBC. So, feeling a responsibility to document anything that might happen next, he focused his telephoto lens on "Tank Man" and created a photo that documented the historic moment—a picture that would earn Cole the top World Press Photo award the following year. That picture will now serve as part his legacy in the wake of some sad news out of Indonesia: Cole died last week in Bali at the age of 64.

Cole, who was commissioned to cover the event for Newsweek, wasn't the only photographer on the scene: Stuart Franklin took a similar photo for Magnum, while Arthur Tsang and Jeff Widener shot their pics for Reuters and the AP, respectively, per DIY Photography. Cole later revealed that he feared Chinese security forces would search through and confiscate his gear, so he hid that roll of film in his hotel room's bathroom, wrapping up the canister in plastic and attaching it to the flush chain inside the toilet tank. Sure enough, he was paid a visit, and he saw all of his other film rolls get taken away, but that one stayed safe. The BBC notes the pics of Tank Man, who didn't end up getting killed by the tanks, are still banned in China. The South China Morning Post notes the subject's identity and ultimate fate remain unclear. Read more on Cole's life here. (Read more obituary stories.)

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