“On the evening of the 3rd June, I was halfway through a meal in the Beijing Hotel when troops began their final assault on Tiananmen. I grabbed my cameras, food unfinished and went out into the night. Tear gas already hung heavy in the streets. I saw much bloodshed, trauma and atrocity over the next few hours. I was beaten several times, once trying to prevent an attack by an angry mob upon a young soldier. I also lost many rolls of film to what I assumed were plain clothed security personnel who frisked me and beat me about the face and body for taking pictures of injured troops. It was a toxic working environment. Dangerous, forlorn and unpredictable. By morning it was virtually over. The streets were littered with the detritus of riot, mayhem and death. Tiananmen Square was back in the control of the authorities. The protests had ended. The rest, as they say, was history.” – Robert Croma
In May 1989, then 30-year-old British photographer Robert Croma headed to China to see for himself the . The trip was mostly self-financed. Croma was advised against the idea by news desks in New York and London and told that “the Tiananmen story was over.” He went anyway.
“Initially, there was a tremendous festive spirit amidst the occupation of the square,” writes Croma in an interview via email. “Nothing palpably menacing at all. People were open and at ease. I spent many nights in Tiananmen, talking and eating with students, photographing and sleeping in some of the makeshift tents. Nearing the end of May, rumours began circulating that troops would soon come and attempt to clear the square. I received information from student sources about troop movements around Beijing. In early June, I took a cab to the outskirts of the city and discovered many troops stationed along the roads. I got the immediate impression something conclusive was soon to happen.”
“In the day or so before the PLA’s final assault on Tiananmen, there was some minor skirmishing between protesters and a contingent of troops who had moved closer to the square. But nothing that indicated what was about to unfold. The final assault on the night of the 3-4 June was swift, brutal and decisive. I saw numerous people killed, both protesters and soldiers. Although rioting and skirmishes continued throughout the night, the occupation was effectively over by first light.”
“The most remembered image from that period is of , which was photographed from a window of the Beijing Hotel by several photographers a day after the final assault on Tiananmen. It’s an iconic image that has escaped the confines of its own event, to fly freely down the years and into the psyche of the human narrative.”
Croma discovered photography the 1980s. After initially using a camera borrowed from a friend, he began photographing news and political events around London. After a time he was able to self-finance trips abroad as a full-time freelance photojournalist, spending time in the Middle East, Latin America and Eastern Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“In the 1990s I spent some months in Nicaragua, ostensibly to photograph social conditions in the north of the country,” remembers Croma. “I had a number of commissions from European magazines to fulfill. But the longer I remained in Nicaragua, the more difficult I was finding it to motivate myself journalistically. At sunrise one day, beside the waters of the Río Grande de Matagalpa, I had a sudden yet decisive realization of the impossibility of taking another photograph. The following day, I impulsively gave away all my camera equipment to an impoverished farming family I’d been staying with in the north of the country. It was many years before I felt the creative urge to photograph again.”
“My sudden and complete detachment from photojournalism also included a total disregard for my negatives and transparencies from my journalistic years. I simply walked away from it all. For decades I believed most of the work lost forever, as indeed, much of it seems to be. Fortunately, bits and pieces have resurfaced in recent years, chiefly in the form of old prints preserved by others. These include an incomplete set of impressions from the student protests of 1989 Beijing, a selection of which is shown here.”
Looking back at his pictures a quarter century later, Croma finds it hard to reconcile the China of today with those scenes from the square that he captured on black and white film. “Such a swift transformation seemed wholly inconceivable in 1989,” he states. “Of course, it can now be argued that the Tiananmen student protests were indeed an impetus to China’s meteoric economic rise.”
“My images are backstory and record. I almost can’t remember taking them, but their presence all these years later perhaps defies the vagaries of time and memory to hopefully give an impressionistic poetry of generous intent and visual grace.”
All images © Robert Croma