All things being equal, by the time this column appears in print, we would have ‘commemorated’, in a mostly peaceful manner, a very important date in world history – the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre.
Note that I have used the word ‘commemorated’ in quotation marks because I am not really sure that is the right verb. We would have remembered or recalled, but we won’t be celebrating.
Note also that I spared no effort here in calling the incident what it was – a massacre.
I am bold about the proclamation, not just because I am a Western-educated liberal Asian writing for a predominantly Western audience. I am frank about it because there are solid photographic evidences to prove that what happened in the famous square in Beijing in May and June 1989 was not a trivial matter we should forget.
Fortunately and unfortunately, it took a ‘controversial’ photography exhibition I saw recently to ignite this conviction in me.
On a holiday in Beijing in April, I chanced upon a show called Paris-Beijing, French Focus on China, 1844-2014, at Today Art Museum, reportedly China’s first private and non-profit museum.
Curated by Alain Sayag, a big name in the photo world, the show is shown in three different locations in Beijing, as well as category one Chinese cities like Chengdu, Kunming and Guangzhou.
The works, all by French nationals but not necessarily professional photographers, were selected from various prestigious collections.
As the name of the show would suggest, this is one of the many cultural events under the Franco-Sino friendship umbrella.
Walking into the swanky exhibition space in the booming Chaoyang district, I kept telling myself one thing, “Please let there be images of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989.”
There was none. Zilch.
Convinced that I could be suffering from early stage dementia, I asked a friend who had gone with me to the show if I was right, and he confirmed my fear.
Perhaps it wasn’t dementia that I had but more like a combination of naivety, stupidity and unworldliness.
Did I really think that the power-to-be on both sides would jeopardize the precious diplomatic ties the two countries have forged and benefited, just to prove that they are enlightened? Yes I did.
In writing this column, I also began to doubt my objectivity and started asking myself if I was right to assume that French photographers were in Beijing during the crisis.
Just to be sure, I researched and found damning pictures from Jacques Langevin, Patrick Zachmann, Abbas, all decorated names in documentary photography and photojournalism.
The right brain of mine decided it was okay to leave those images out because the show is supposed to be celebratory. But my left brain insisted that the incident should never be allowed to vanish into thin air.
To prove my point, I grilled a young Chinese friend on what he knows about the tragedy, and his answers confirmed my belief that those images needed to be shown.
One thing for sure, he did not expect to see what I was expecting.
“Of course not,” Max, a recent graduate and young entrepreneur told me, “this is not even mentioned in our history text books.”
Curious,I asked him what he believes happened in June 1989.
“I think hundreds of people, students as well as soldiers died.”
“I think my country was going through a difficult time in the 80s and the different political factions used the students for their own benefits.”
“I don’t think the students knew what they died for.”
I asked another friend, “Do you think Chinese today think more about money and less about politics?”
Cecilia, who just started her career in banking, said, “Poor people think about money, rich people too. Politics is only a small part of our post-dinner conversation.”
“But I don’t understand the need to hide the Tiananmen incident from us,” she added.
“I think the students started out with the right motive, and that is to help the country. But when things got out of control, the government used the most direct method of intervention — sending in the troops and tanks.”
I asked Max and Cecilia whether they had seen images of the Tiananmen massacre before, and they told me there were underground websites available.
Cecilia added, “the boys in my middle school used to boast about the fact that they had seen what they were not supposed to.”
But she has not seen them herself.
Heading towards the Beijing international airport after my holidays, I was in awe of the super skyscrapers rising all over the Chinese capital. They certainly looked impressive.
But I also could not help also wondering if people will soon forget what happened here 25 years ago.
In the name of change and reform, a lot of people lost their lives. Remember?
This personal column was originally written for the July 2014 issue of Professional Photographer UK.