American photojournalist Charlie Cole, author of the historic “Tank Man” photo of Tiananmen Square, passed away last week in Bali, Indonesia.
Cole, 64, a resident of Bali for 15 years, was one of the cameramen who took photos of the scene from the balcony of a Beijing hotel: he and his famous photo won the 1989 World Press Photo.
The snapshot for which Cole is best known, which went around the world and became one of the most iconic photos of the last century, shows a man standing in front of a column of armored vehicles on the Pekingian avenue of Chang’An, as an individual protest , after hundreds of young people died in the square hours earlier.
Cole’s sister Susan announced the death of her brother to her relatives, who she revealed that she died on 5 September of sepsis caused by a recently suffered leg injury.
“Charlie fondly recalled the years he had worked as a passionate photojournalist who sought the truth and friendships forged by the experiences shared with like-minded men and women, a little crazy and life-lovers. Charlie dived completely and with all his heart in life,” Susan wrote.
The first person to report Cole’s death was journalist John McBeth, who met the financier for three decades and wrote an extensive obituary in the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post.
“I used to have lunch with him when I visited Bali. (Cole) was a highly talented photographer, gifted with the inquisitive mind of a journalist,” he told Efe McBeth, who added that Cole was “exaggeratedly humble, so there are many things in his life that I don’t know about.”
In an interview with Efe a decade ago, Cole explained that he took the photo “with a Nikon and a 300-millimeter lens, from a balcony that was a long way away, about 200 meters from the scene,” from Stuart Franklin’s room on the eighth floor of the hotel.”
Having dispersed the people who had returned to the square that morning, a column of 25 tanks advanced down the avenue.
“Out of nowhere that young man appeared, with a jacket in one hand and a bag in the other, and stood in front of the tanks. I couldn’t believe it. But I kept shooting, convinced he was going to be killed. To my amazement, the tank stopped,” the photographer explained.
Then, anticipating the police, who the night before he was assaulted with an electric spike at the hotel reception, he hid the reels in the toilet cistern.
Just last June marked the thirtyth year of the Tiananmen massacre, an event that today the Government remains unacknowledged, shying away from responsibilities, denying evidence and criminalizing the victims of the crackdown that ended student demonstrations.
Indeed, to this day, the identity and fate of the “tank man” are still unclear and the image remains blocked in Chinese’s censored networks.
Born in Bonham, Texas, Cole graduated in journalism from the University of Texas at Denton in 1978 and, thanks to his father’s military profession, his work was frequently linked to the military, covering conflicts such as the uprising of the Filipino people in 1985 or South Korea’s student demonstrations in the mid-1980s.
After a traffic accident, his leg was shattered and he ended up switching his profession to commercial photography.