Artist Khiang Hei took a photograph just after the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing on June 4, 1989, when the Communist-led Chinese government declared martial law, using assault weapons and tanks to violently clear the square of student protesters.
“The bicycles were crushed flat by the tanks,” said Hei. “I was not there as a photographer or photo journalist, I was a sophomore.”
Hei was studying abroad in Beijing when a student activist tipped him off to the demonstrations. He grabbed his Canon F1 camera, a few rolls of film and began snapping photos.
One photograph he took shows thousands of bicycles filling the streets around the square — the only means of transportation for protesters.
The student-organized strikes began as a way to call for democratic reforms following the death of a former Communist Party leader who was forced to resign after pushing for major economic and political changes.
“I didn’t think that it was going to carry on for so long; I thought it was a one-time event,” Hei said.
But it wasn’t. Hei would return every day for six weeks, capturing some of the most intimate moments in perhaps the most historic pro-democracy demonstration of the 20th century. His iconic photographs are now in an exhibit at the Rutgers University Zimmerli Art Museum.
“Although I’m a Chinese descendant, I did not speak or read Mandarin, so I depended on whatever Chinese student would tell me and try to piece it together,” he said.
Hei says he was both an insider and outsider, his Chinese heritage helping him to blend in on the front lines while he tried to make sense of living history around him. He credits his background, having lived through civil war and genocide in Cambodia, for his ability to capture the simple beginnings at Tiananmen.
He says the peaceful roots of this protest are often forgotten when we talk about the event. He hopes his photos will restore that.
“I was there not trying to make news and I was not trying to make anything from it, just to have a collection of these images, more of intimate relationships of the people there,” he said.
And to prevent history from repeating itself.
You can see all of these photos on display at the gallery through July 28. It’s free and open to students and the public.