Work it. The Scene.

I have been lucky enough to have traveled the world at a young age due to my father’s job. Like my sister and I say, every so often we start getting itchy feet and want to move elsewhere. For now, my home is Detroit. Yet, I can’t deny that even after almost 5 years, I see it from a tourist’s perspective.

I observe with the eyes of an outsider. I draw parallels between different worlds, be it the striking differences between Palmer Woods and the 7 Mile homes (just one street that divides these two areas) or between Europe and the States – yes, I am half Italian and half American, and I compare the two frequently. Also a Third Culture Kid? Well because I lived in Asia for 10 years, 5 of which in China.

Stuart Franklin‘s famous shot, that of the individual in front of the tank  (seems like some fascination with Tanks, as my first two posts have both tanks in them!) was taken in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

He also admits “I carried in my mind very powerful images from Czech civilians facing off with Soviet tanks as they moved into Prague in ‘68.” (Nat Geo article)

I can’t believe I spent two of my New Year’s Eve celebrating there, some ten years later after the image was shot.

The year was 1989 and the “Goddess of Democracy” statue was wheeled into Tiananmen square by Chinese art students, as a protest for greater freedom of speech, press, and to end corruption. Protesters continued to camp in the square, and a few weeks after the government intervened by sending in troops. On June 5th, Stuart Franklin took the famous Tank photo. But before it made it to the printing rolls it had to be sneaked out. The military had occupied the hotel where Franklin was staying and journalists were prohibited from working and confiscated any footage they could.

Franklin hid the film in a box of tea and gave it to a French student that was going to Paris. Does it get better than that? A roll of film, which has become iconic, stored in a box of the favorite Chinese drink, to expose reality. It’s a Trojan horse in reverse. (Source: The Guardian article )

How did Franklin get that shot? Was it luck? Was it one shot? Was it all the preparation in the world and then “click”? Was it having all the right gear?


It was some of the above, but then also working the scene. He worked it. The scene that is.

20 frames, only on this contact sheet, about 13 of the specific scene. Working the scene, working with the angles, focus points, exposure, to then take an iconic image of what happened then. The power of the man; the man who will not bow down to power. The man who has a voice in the his quite and restful demeanor. Much different to the knight on Koudelka’s famous tank (post on that image here) but powerful nonetheless. Maybe a different era. Certainly two different cultures.

Yet the photos stand out. And tell us the story. They document that historical act. It can empower generations to come.

And that is obviously thanks to those courageous gentleman defying power, but also to Stuart Franklin who documented it.

You can see he shot both in landscape and portrait modes, but not Dutch angle. He included the buildings in the background, and then excluded them. He caught a wider angle allowing the viewer to see more than ten tanks storming in. And then he zoomed in.

His vantage point is also key. The tanks are rolling in towards him. It’s much more impactful to the viewer. Compare the images of the tanks rolling in compared to the tanks going out.

Man aside, they tell a different story and leave a different feeling with the viewer.

I recall how the picture was completely blocked by the Chinese government. Searching it on Google yielded no results. That’s how powerful the image is. I remember the amazement in not finding it when in living in China.

Two other photographers also took shots of the same scene, each with their own view.

Jeff Widener

The image colors are a less vivid compared to Cole’s image below, and the exposure seems to be in the correct range compared to Franklin’s darker image above. This image, albeit incredibly powerful in its own right, is my least favorite. It was though the one that circulated the most.

Charlie Cole

This is a tighter shot, with vivid colors, and with a ruthless sense of ambiguity. Will the tank stop or not? Also, the man is challenging the tank, unlike in Widener’s shot, where he seems to be getting in position. The two bags are now equally distributed, as compared to where he has them both in one hand in the other image.

Even these details make the difference.

I still prefer Franklin’s wider shot. It gives me the story, the burnt bus in the background, a solitary man, a place in history. Context. Even back then the roads were nicely finished and with plenty of lanes. Details to the bigger image.

And lastly, he took the image behind a window. You can see his reflection on the right hand side.


My working the scene.

We’ve all heard it. “The decisive moment”. HC Bresson’s famous saying. Yes, I agree – for the most part. Yet, I can’t help but look at the contact sheets like the one above and feel that impulse to take that extra shot.

But that doesn’t mean “spray and pray”.

It means working the scene. Franklin changed his perspective, field of view, orientation, followed the scene and framed 20 shots differently. He did it with purpose. You can tell that there aren’t two or more images of the same scene. Shoot, recompose, shoot, recompose, and so on. Then you develop them, and see that the one that stood out was the one that had the right balance to it.

The other day I went for my usual photo walk, this time in Downtown Detroit. I saw the following scene unfold in front of my eyes. Was it “one and done”? No. I moved, I ran, I got closer. I loved it, I saw it, I captured it. I felt it. It spoke to me.

Religious diversity in Downtown Detroit, Jul 2017

Here below are the additional frames I took. Although they are similar, there are no duplicates, or near duplicates from shooting at a high frequency. This wasn’t a sport shot, it wasn’t a high pace environment. The only high pace were my legs, pivoting left and right, jumping up and down. The van couldn’t get away. I couldn’t take it and think “I’ll crop and adjust it later”.

No. I worked the scene. And then I searched and began reading about the Arab American Community in the Detroit. More to come on that.

Back to the photos. On the one above I didn’t like the pole sticking into the first girl’s head. So I ran to the right, and tried to snap one from a different angle.

I found that the sign “Jesus Loves You” shouldn’t be cut. And wasn’t fond of the fire hydrant.

I thought the pole separated the juxtaposition that I was looking for. Unlike the final one I chose, you could see the pole stuck in the ground making a stronger division. In the final one that affect is hidden.

And in the image I chose out of the few photos taken, I particularly like that the two ladies are looking at the sign.

Did I see all of this while shooting? Some details, yes, others, like the “pole in the head” no. But through some practice I have been able to be more reactive and visually ready.


So in addition to beginning to read about the Arab American community in Detroit, I’m also excited because from this study I found out that Stuart Franklin wrote a book, The Documentary Impulse. I immediately purchased it on Amazon and it is due to get here tomorrow!

And if you want more information on the Tiananmen Tank Man story click here.


Until Next time,

Neil and Ali’s Red



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