I’ve taken an interest in photography lately. I think it started in January, when I saw Letizia Battaglia’s Palermo photographs. They were on display at the MAXXI in Rome. To see something nearly a world away, in a different time, from a completely different perspective through a single photograph, a single moment, is one of the great things about photographic art, especially when the photograph isn’t intended to be seen as art. Photojournalists like Battaglia, or Stan Grossfeld, or Carol Guzy don’t take photos with the intent of conveying a specific message or creating a beautiful picture. They only want to show events as they were. And recently, some new additions to the realm of photojournalism have drawn the attention of many people.
Most of the infamous barbarities committed by the People’s Liberation Army of China during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 were recorded by foreign journalists who managed to elude Chinese censors. The most famous of these documents is Jeff Widener’s Tank Man photograph, taken from the balcony of a hotel near the square and hidden from the Public Security Bureau in the hotel room toilet. These photos, however, were taken by foreign journalists and media crews. Recently, a Chinese immigrant living in San Francisco has come forward with his own photographs that he took twenty-eight years ago.
David Chen (pictured above) was a student in Dalian in northeastern China when the protest in Tiananmen Square began. Disenchanted with the ruling generation of politicians, as well as spurred on by democratic victories in Eastern Europe and the death of the beloved former General-Secretary Hu Yaobang, many young people converged on the capital’s main square to demand reform to counter corruption and nepotism among other things. Chen managed to organize some similar demonstrations in Dalian before traveling to Beijing, more than 500 miles away, bringing his camera and four rolls of film with him. After a week in Beijing, he had run out of film. Luckily, Chen returned to Dalian to develop the photos before the violence broke out. After martial law had been established, Chen hid the negatives, which he later converted into digital photos before moving to the United States in 2012. Cameras were a luxury in China during the 1980s, so to have these photos, taken by a Chinese student, is a real rarity.
The events that occurred in Tiananmen Square are still controversial in China, with government censors heavily regulating Internet traffic relating to the issue. Today marks twenty-eight years since the government crackdown began, which is most likely why Chan chose now to unveil his previously unknown photographs. Similarly, others have chosen this time to reveal some new things regarding the anniversary. Most notably, one very famous liquor bottle, with a label commemorating the protest and subsequent massacre, has been traveling around the world for the past year; from China, to the Middle East, to Paris, and to Washington. The bottle of baijiu liquor arrived in Hong Kong this past Tuesday, just in time for the anniversary. Four men who helped design the label in the city of Chengdu have since been detained for producing and selling these bottles, including the one that has been making its way around the world. Chinese authorities are planning with charging them with inciting subversion of the state. Several parents of students killed at Tiananmen Square have spoken out about the charges against the designers, saying that they are willing to testify on their behalf.
Both the haunting, black and white photographs and the incriminating label that the four activists were arrested for are reminders of a harsh reality: that one of the world’s great nations can deny the right to express oneself. The protests in 1989 reached their peak when art students constructed and erected a 10-meter-tall statue made out of foam and papier-mâché called the Goddess of Democracy (above). One of the most provocative moves that the protesters made was placing the statue directly in front of the portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs in front of the Forbidden City. It was the Goddess vs. the Chairman. The original statue was torn down during the crackdown, but replicas have since been constructed all over the world. These photographs may resonate with many people throughout the world, living in the strange times that we’re living in. And hopefully, with David Chen’s photographs as reminders of a universal desire for transparency and creative freedom, China, among other nations, will erect the Goddess of Democracy once more.