On Editing, Part 1

A couple of days ago, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the New York Times website ran a fascinating about the iconic photograph of the so-called tank man—the man in the white shirt, holding what look like shopping bags, standing defiantly in front of a column of approaching tanks. The Times, quite justifiably, calls it "one of the most famous photographs in recent history." Thing is, unlike many other famous photographs—Robert Capa's comes immediately to mind—there isn't just one of them. There were a lot of photojournalists covering the event that day, and as a of the confrontation between the tank man and the tanks shows, the incident lasted long enough for several photographers to capture essentially the same image. The Times piece has the recollections of four of them: Charlie Cole (who was working for Newsweek), Stuart Franklin (Time), Jeff Widener (Associated Press), and Arthur Tsang Hin Wah (Reuters). Each photographer is given several paragraphs to explain how they took their pictures, what was happening around them at the time, and what happened afterward. David Nickerson, a political scientist at Notre Dame, emailed me a link to the New York Times piece; we are friends from college and are always emailing each other newspaper items with snarky comments attached (this piece is written with Prof. Nickerson's generous consent). As we talked more about the piece, two themes emerged, about both the event itself and the apparent personalities of the photographers. But really, we were talking about editing: how our perceptions of a thing are shaped by every word we read about it and every word that is left out.

The tank man is a compelling figure partly because he's anonymous. His back is always to the photographer, and to this day, as the Times piece pointed out, his identity and whereabouts are unclear. This may seem almost impossible to believe: His showdown with the tanks was the middle of a wide street in broad daylight, witnessed apparently by hundreds of people, many of whom, even at the time, knew they were witnessing something extraordinary. But look at the recollections of the four photojournalists of what happened to the tank man immediately after he stopped the tanks:

[Cole:] Finally, the PSB (Public Security Bureau) grabbed him and ran away with him. [Franklin:] He then disappeared into the crowd after being led away from the tank by two bystanders. [Wah:] Four or five people came out from the sidewalk and pulled him away. He disappeared forever.

Was it two bystanders or four or five? And what led Cole to think to think that they were security officers? (Were they?) Right from the start, the stories of eyewitnesses to the scene don't square—and these are journalists at the top of their game, people who are much better than most of us at getting the facts right. At this point, my editor brain kicked in. Surely the editor of the Times piece noticed the discrepancies. Did they ask the photographers any follow-up questions? Wouldn't you just love to get the three of them in a room right now to sort this all out? (Presumably does something like that and more.)

Meanwhile, Widener's piece doesn't mention what happened to the tank man after he took his picture at all, which brings us to a more delicate matter. As Prof. Nickerson pointed out, Widener's account of the actual taking of the picture is very different from the accounts of the other three photographers. Cole, Franklin, and Wah recall mostly what was happening around them—who was there, what they were doing. In their accounts, they're photojournalists doing their jobs, but their concern for the tank man's safety, not to mention the safety of themselves and everyone around them, is evident. Cole even finds time to take a wider view:

As the tanks neared the Beijing Hotel, the lone young man walked toward the middle of the avenue waving his jacket and shopping bag to stop the tanks. I kept shooting in anticipation of what I felt was his certain doom. But to my amazement, the lead tank stopped, then tried to move around him. But the young man cut it off again. Finally, the PSB (Public Security Bureau) grabbed him and ran away with him. Stuart [Franklin; apparently they were standing next to each other, which accounts for the similarities in their photographs —ed.] and I looked at each other somewhat in disbelief at what we had just seen and photographed.

I think his action captured peoples’ hearts everywhere, and when the moment came, his character defined the moment, rather than the moment defining him. He made the image. I was just one of the photographers. And I felt honored to be there.

Now look at Widener:

I loaded the single roll of film in a Nikon FE2 camera body. It was small and had an auto-exposure meter. As I tried to sleep off the massive headache that pounded my head, I could hear the familiar sound of tanks in the distance. I jumped up. Kurt/Kirk [a college kid who's helping them and whose name Widener never quite caught —ed.] followed me to the window. In the distance was a huge column of tanks. It was a very impressive sight. Being the perfectionist that I am, I waited for the exact moment for the shot.

Suddenly, some guy in a white shirt runs out in front and I said to Kurt/Kirk “Damn it—that guy’s going to screw up my composition.” Kurt/Kirk shouted, “They are going to kill him!” I focused my Nikon 400mm 5.6 ED IF lens and waited for the instant he would be shot. But he was not.

The image was way too far away. I looked back at the bed and could see my TC-301 teleconverter. That little lens adapter could double my picture. With it, I could have a stronger image but then I might lose it all together if he was gone when I returned.

I dashed for the bed, ran back to the balcony and slapped the doubler on. I focused carefully and shot one … two … three frames until I noticed with a sinking feeling that my shutter speed was at a very low 30th-60th of a second. Any camera buff knows that a shutter speed that slow is impossible hand-held with an 800mm focal length. I was leaning out over a balcony and peeking around a corner. I faced the reality that the moment was lost.

In comparing the four entries (in their entirety as they appear in the piece, not only in what I've excerpted here) it was easy for me to think a few uncharitable thoughts about Widener. He seems more concerned with his camera equipment than with what's happening to the people around him. Most tellingly—or so it would seem at first read—at the point in his narrative where he might tell us what happened to the tank man, it seems that Widener was actually looking at his camera, noticing that the shutter speed was too low. In the Cole, Franklin, and Wah accounts, the man appears as a man; in Widener's, he is an element of composition.

But then my editor brain kicked in again. Was I really being fair to Widener? After all, my opinion of his account was formed, first, from comparing it with the other three accounts. Without the other three accounts right next to his, the idea that Widener was more preoccupied with his photograph than the subject of the photograph might never have occurred to me. Widener's piece might even have struck me as funny and refreshingly candid—the story of a man trying to do his job in trying circumstances.

Then the real doubt started to creep in. As a editor, I should know better than to think I'd even read all of what the photojournalists wrote (let alone what they would say if I were to be fortunate enough to have dinner with them). Perhaps Widener's piece had a lot about the tank man himself, but it was redacted due to concerns about the length of the piece overall. Perhaps the other three had a lot more talk about the gear they had, but Widener's gear talk was better, so they left Widener's in and cut the rest out. All these pieces had been through the editing mill (one editor? Two? Three?), and they were edited (presumably, and no matter how invasively) to make the piece as a whole as tight and coherent as possible, while sacrificing as little of the authors' voice and intent as possible. But no edit is made without giving up something; the question is whether what you're giving up is worth what you get in return. And there's no predicting how people will read the final product: Maddeningly, wonderfully, some readers respond to even the most straightforward text in ways that surprise even the most careful writers and editors.

In every published text, in the passage from thought or experience to writer to editors to reader, perception piles onto perception, subjectivity piles onto subjectivity, and the original thing—the truth, or the closest thing we have to it—is buried under layers of reconsiderations, rewordings, and manipulated grammar. It sounds like a bunch of postmodern claptrap, I know; but it's the nature of the job. And twenty years later, we have these stories of what happened in Beijing that June 4—or May 35, as some call it to avoid censorship from China's government—but we still don't know who the tank man was, or where he is today.