Tiananmen Square Still Haunts Photographer Brothers After 25 Years

Two well-known photojournalists, identical twins, were witness to the hopeful protest and its violent aftermath

A scheduled reporting trip to China for Peter Turnley turned into months-long coverage of historic protests. "This is early morning, hours after the Chinese government declared martial law," Peter said.


David Turnley was in Paris when he got the call. His brother Peter was in Beijing to cover the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to China but was on the line with different, more exciting news. A small group of students had taken to the streets in protest in Tiananmen Square—and their numbers were swelling.

"I think something is happening here," Peter told his brother. You need to cover this too, Peter urged.

What had started with a handful of students "soon turned into 10,000, and a few days after that, a million," recalls Peter, all in support of greater political and personal freedoms. The year 1989 was a time of historic change in entrenched political systems like the Soviet Union and South Africa, and the Chinese students wanted to be part of it.

David flew out to cover the events as well, and as he walked among the million or more protesters who soon filled Tiananmen Square, "there was a sense of an elevated human spirit," he says. "It was euphoric."

That euphoria did not last long. The People's Liberation Army was massing outside the city. The photographers followed some of the students as they traveled to the convoys to beg them not to interfere. When the army did crack down, David and Peter were there to photograph the brutal events and the generalized fear that followed.

Both have photographed many of the world's wars and uprisings over the past 30 years, but Tiananmen stands out as profoundly affecting, both professionally and personally. Both say they were honored to have witnessed the courage of the students of Tiananmen, and they are still shaped by it 25 years later.

"These events were much greater than the work of any one person," says Peter. "I can never forget the setback Tiananmen Square represented for me in my own heart. I still to this day feel the scars of those events."

A young woman paints a sign for the mass protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Students occupied the square for over a month to demand social and political reforms, but the long protest ended in violence when the government ordered troops to fire on the students and crushed the uprising. University campuses, says Turnley "were the pulse and infrastructure of the movement."

More than 300,000 Chinese students and workers protested in Tiananmen Square asking for greater freedom and democracy in China on May 15, the day Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Deng Xiaoping in the Great Hall of the People. Turnley, assigned to film that historic meeting, was unable to reach the hall and decided to photograph the people instead. "The people in the streets were more important than the handshake."

A demonstrator reads aloud from the hood of a military truck as students tried to stop the Chinese military from entering Beijing the day that Martial law was declared on May 20. "Up until that point the people had an appreciation and sense of closeness with the military," says Turnley. "I believe that the students very strongly felt that the People's Army would take side with their cause."

A young student protestor in Tiananmen Square wears a sign written in English, which reads: I love life, I need food, but I'd rather die [than live] without democracy. "What struck me every day in these early weeks was not so much the connection to their specific demands, but what one encountered walking among these millions," says Turnley, "a generalized youthful passion for greater freedoms and a better life."

On the afternoon of June 3, 1989, thousands of Chinese troops entered the city to retake control of Tiananmen Square and crush the student uprising. In this photograph, one of the students attempts to mobilize the students to stand their ground against the soldiers. "There was a sense of inevitability by now, but it reminded me of the deep South: Lock arms, stay strong, and we shall overcome."

On the afternoon of June 3, as thousands of Chinese troops rolled into the heart of Beijing, the mother of one of the students begs a young soldier to put down his arms. "So many of these soldiers were peers of the students, trucked in from the provinces," says Turnley. "The mother was saying, 'These are your dreams as well, turn back.' I think the soldiers had no idea what they were mixed up in and were in shock."

In the middle of the night of June 3-4, the Chinese army used tanks and foot soldiers to force the students from Tiananmen Square. Refusing to leave, they massed on nearby Changan Avenue, standing in rows to face the army's machine guns. "Every 15 minutes the Chinese would go to the lines and mow down the front row of students," says Turnley. "The first row would go down, then they would collect the bodies, move them to the rear, and a new line was formed." To this day it is unclear whether hundreds or thousands were killed as the students sacrificed themselves. "They did this until daybreak, until they realized their day in history was over."

Family members try to comfort a grief-stricken mother who has just learned of the death of her son, a student protester killed by soldiers at Tiananmen Square on June 4. "The next day we went to the morgue. The families had no idea what had happened, and this mother just discovered her child had been killed." In the days that followed, says Turnley, fear set in and few Chinese dared to speak to foreign photographers. "The power of the repression was so full-scale, it managed to put down not just their dreams. It was absolutely soul crushing for me, and still is, frankly."

Two students grieve for their friends and their dreams in the early hours of June 4. Says Turnley: "I think the Chinese have a long sense of history. That day didn't unfold just in the history of China, but of the world. I want to pay tribute to these students, it was a tremendous sacrifice they made. It was an honor to be a part of it."

Mangled bicycles hang from the side of a Chinese army tank, which was burned by student protesters as it tried to enter the square in the midst of what would soon be called the Tiananmen Square massacre. It is unclear whether the bicycles were hit or were positioned in protest. After the massacre, the streets became silent, recalls Turnley. "It was a treacherous time—we didn't know if it was an official policy or not, but journalists and photographers were told we had no right to be in the streets reporting." They went anyway.

Beijing citizens survey the damage on the day after the massacre. "You see on people's faces a very discreet curiosity—they are trying to figure out what had just happened the previous night," says Turnley. Citizens who had been open and friendly were now afraid. "The atmosphere changed completely. No one would look you in the eye or speak to you." To this day, Chinese who try to discuss or memorialize the events face a clampdown on information and risk imprisonment.

David Turnley (on right) and Peter Turnley (on left) document the student movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989.


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