Commentary | Taking a closer look at Tank Man

I have seen so many amazing photos. The ones that strike me most deeply portray ordinary individuals doing extraordinary things. I’m inspired by photos of young women in Afghanistan lining up to cast their votes or of university students in Tehran engaging in peaceful protests to demand nothing less than having their voices heard. Such photos are all around us – on news web sites, in magazines, in books. But thanks to globalization, we have grown accustomed to such photos and no longer pay much attention to them, and even less to the message they convey.

No clearer was this revealed to me than at the McGill poster sale. In the crowded room, I acted like any other student. I absent-mindedly walked around, looking for a nice poster to embellish the bare white walls of my apartment. I may have passed by countless photos portraying historical events or individuals who have had an impact on this world, but I paid little attention to them since I’d seen these images before. After walking around aimlessly for 20 minutes, I stopped and found myself in front of a black and white poster entitled “The Human Spirit” showing a lone man (also known as “Tank Man”) standing unflinchingly in front of a long row of moving tanks.

I had seen this picture before. Just a few months ago, watching a documentary on the Tiananmen Square protests left me inspired. What stirred me most was the resolve of these ordinary individuals to press on in order to bring about change, despite the obstinacy of the Chinese political regime. While staring at the poster of Tank Man, I was struck by how little attention we give such photos. Everyone who sees this photo admits that this man was very courageous, but reflections usually stop there. This is not to say that such images do not become the object of sterile reflection, but rarely do they inspire us to action. I believe the reason for this is that most of us are caught up in our own circumstances, and that we rarely identify with the people we see in these photos.

As I contemplate what Tank Man did 20 years ago, I become more and more convinced that he is someone that anyone can relate to. He was an ordinary person who, despite being in the middle of chaos and bloodshed, decided to take a stand for what he thought was right, and his courage led him to do something remarkable. Unfortunately, our appreciation for Tank Man’s bravery, along with similar acts of courage, is cheapened by how frequently we see these images. When we see such photos, we tend to detach ourselves from the events they are depicting; this distancing blinds us to the subtle message they are conveying. What we need to do is look beyond the photo and attempt to understand the circumstances surrounding the event captured in the picture. Only once we understand the magnitude of the message transmitted by the photo can we truly be inspired by it, and maybe even act upon it.

Sarah Ghabrial can be reached at sarah.ghabrial@mail.mcgill.ca.


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