It was a black film canister, rattling around the bottom of an old Naturalizer shoebox labeled “photos.” I opened it, wondering if it was a roll of unused film. Instead, I found a twist of white tissue paper wrapped around tightly rolled black-and-white negatives. I held them up to the light. At first I saw…legs.
Then, people with bicycles.
Next, a white form rising above a crowd, holding…a torch?
Oh man, is this what I think it is?
On Sunday night, I was searching through my parents’ photos for a piece I was writing on Tiananmen Square and my father, when I stumbled across two rolls of negatives that appeared to be from the 1989 student democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. I was stunned. I had no idea where they were from, why my parents had them, or why they never said anything about them.
Since my parents died, I’ve become an archeologist of my own past, digging through documents of half-remembered events, looking at pictures of people whose names I’ll never now know. Finding something like this though, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of June 4, was unexpected.
I had the photos printed. There were two rolls of film: 30 photos of a march down Chang’an Avenue to Tiananmen Square, another set of 15 photos of the Goddess of Democracy presiding over the square. In the second roll, I found a picture of my uncle, who was an art student in Beijing during the protests. Mystery partially solved.
I knew from my parents that my uncle was in Beijing during the protests, that he had gone to the square, and that he was not in the square on the night of June 3. I had no idea he had taken pictures. He must have developed the photos himself. Did he mail them to my parents? Did he slip them to my mother when she went to China in 1993? There’s no way to ask, at least for now.
From some of the banners, it looks like the first set of photos must have been taken after the student hunger strike began on May 13, but before May 29. The second set must be from the five days between May 30, when the Goddess of Democracy was unveiled, and June 3, when everything went to pieces.
When we talk about Tiananmen and June 4, we often speak of memory, and forgetting. These photos have waited 25 years to be seen. So let’s take a look, and remember.
Photos from the march (sometime between May 13-May 29, 1989)
Photos of the Goddess of Democracy on Tiananmen Square (sometime between May 30-June 3, 1989)