HS Liu or Swimming in a sea of red (with his camera above the water)
Thirty-four years after the crushing of Tiananmen pro-democracy movement (June) and the fall of the Berlin Wall (November), who still remembers the wide-eyed hopes and the disheartening disillusionment the two events of 1989 released for a better, more peaceful, united world? One unique photographer’s camera happened to be linked to both events. The way to understand what has happened is to look at Liu Heung Shing’s photography and especially to his Steidl-published book “A Life in a Sea of Red”, that refers to his unusual personal life. HS was born in Hong Kong but educated in Communist China, before he enrolled in New York Hunter College, and became a photojournalist crowned by a Pulitzer Prize. His “red” color refers to the two main countries he has covered so avidly behind the nowadays anachronic term “iron curtain”. After working in his early years for Time/Life mag in Beijing and later for the most part of his career for Associated Press, in China and Russia, Liu Heung-Shing who has been known by his abbreviated “artist” name: “HS” from his Cantonese first name Heung Shing (very few called him by his mandarin name Liu Xiang Cheng except in Mainland China) he was the one with this unique vision.
Born 1951 in Hong Kong from parents originally from Fuzhou (Fujian Province) China, HS went to study in New York and entered an internship at Time/Life magazine where he met his mentor Gjon Mili (famous for his 1949 depiction of Picasso drawing with light), who opened for him the files and contact sheets on China by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Riboud, seeding and strengthening his desire to photograph China. He received his first assignment when Mao died in 1976, but was allowed to reach Beijing only in 1978 where he became member of the Associated Press Bureau in Beijing. Just in time for him to witness the roaring 80s and the 90s, the years of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening, after the decade of Cultural Revolution. Following the “Tankman” incident of Tiananmen 1989, he was re-assigned to Russia, again just in time to witness the Soviet troops pull out from Afghanistan, the fall of the Berlin Wall and finally the total collapse of the Soviet Union.
In his own words: “In the last quarter of the 20th century, I followed two of the main geopolitical developments, the rise of China and the collapse of the Soviet Union. These two major long-form of photojournalism continue to reverberate in the 21st century. The signing by six foreign ministers at the Kremlin of the final settlement of post-war Germany that determined the reunification of the two Germanies, that led to the eventual expansion of NATO is one of the causes of conflict today in Ukraine. The fall of the former Soviet Union following the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev has altered the geopolitical map of Central Asia. The rise of China that now champions a multilateral world order has been viewed with reservation if not suspicion in the West.”
(Note by JL: who still remembers Shevardnadze, Gorbachev’s foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher for West Germany, Markus Meckel for East Germany, Roland Dumas for France, Douglas Hurd for UK, James Baker for the USA?).
HS is right if we read the news headlines today, they are mainly marked by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and the mounting tension between the USA and China. But I also remember having played ten years ago (July 2013) the role of an interviewer at HS Liu’s lecture in Shanghai in the Glamour Bar of Three-On-the-Bund, on the occasion of his retrospective at the China Art Palace, after he had shown his pictures of the evolution of Chinese society from rags to riches, I raised the subject of his two iconic photos during the tumultuous years witnessed by HS. The first one is still invisible in China, it was the day after the crushing of protesting students on June 4th on Tiananmen Square, the second one was the picture that contributed to the awarding of Pulitzer Prize to the whole team of Associate Press for their covering the collapse of Soviet Union.
In 1989, on the morning of April 15, 1989, it was announced that the population of the PRC officially reached 1,1 billion. At the same time the news headlines declared the death of the former Party Secretary Hu Yaobang (who was considered a reformist), two days later his memorial service was the start of students gathering on Tiananmen Square. The protest grew and turned into hunger strike for thousands of students, an unprecedented challenge to the leadership who resolved to declaring martial law and sending in soldiers and tanks, ending in the June 4th tragedy. Whilst the protest was all at rage in Beijing, in Poland the Polished Communist Party gave up its monopoly on power and accepted to hold free elections with Solidarnosc in June 1989. Five months later the Berlin Wall fell on 9th November 1989. And two years after Gorbachev visited the students on Tiananmen Square the Soviet Union collapsed.
In June 1989 HS was the temporary chief of AP Beijing Bureau, so he dispatched his newly arrived colleague Jeff Widener to the Beijing Hotel, a perfect vantage point to take pictures of the military occupying Tiananmen Square, it was from there that Jeff Widener captured the iconic Tankman, the unknown hero standing in front of a column of fuming tanks. Widener managed to find an American student to carry the negatives to HS Liu. While HS hurriedly processed the roll of film, he was alerted that tanks were coming his way, so he found a spot on a rooftop to catch the tanks, what was unexpected was a couple of young lovers on a bicycle hiding under the bridge where tanks were patrolling. HS Liu sent out both pictures by Leafax transmitter to AP Headquarters. (The Leafax was the first portable scanner and transmitter invented in 1988 by Leaf System, inc. and AP provided one to their bureau in Beijing!). The next day, HS told me: all major newspapers in the world carried the two shots, those in horizontal editing published the Tankman, those in vertical favored the lovers under the tank-bridge. If Widener’s Tankman carries a powerful message of peace standing up to violence, HS Liu’s lovers under the Tank-Bridge tells a universal story of romantic love in the face of hard times. By the way, the Tiananmen massacre would have had a greater impact were it not shadowed by the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in Teheran that happened on the same day and was widely reported.
Remember the pattern or the three eras of the development of China: — from “China standing up” (in Mao’s declaration in October 1949), to “let’s get rich first” (Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening from 1980s on), to “let’s get stronger” (Xi Jinping since 2013), HS has fully covered the first two stages: from his 1996 portrait of a Guizhou school kid who walked daily 20 km from his destitute and poor village to his school, to his 2010 sleek picture of two golden collar “uptown girls” cruising in a convertible Mercedes-Benz on a boulevard in Pudong Shanghai’s financial district. In between, HS Liu’s rich collection of Chinese social scenes in the 70s and the 80s tell a story untold by other Chinese local photographers or other Western photographers, HS attributed this achievement to his dual identity: his “Chineseness” and his Western educated eye.
At the Glamour Bar lecture, I asked HS to explain his iconic picture of Gorbachev announcing his resignation. On the eve of 25th of December 1991, the AP Moscow photo-chief HS Liu received a phone call from Tom Johnson the President of CNN who had arrived in Moscow: come see me at the Kremlin tomorrow evening. Arriving there Johnson led HS into the room where Soviet Television was all set up to live broadcast an important speech by Mikhail Gorbachev. CNN was the only foreign TV to obtain the exclusive right to rebroadcast the event, and HS Liu was the only foreign photographer at the scene! He positioned himself under the tripod of the TV camera, flanked by a hostile looking KGB agent who warned him not to take picture so that the click of his shutter would not ruin the broadcast. After 6 years and a half in power, Gorbachev was to announce his abdication. Summing up his achievements the Soviet leader said: “we have opened up to the world, we are no longer interfering in other countries’ affairs, we are not using our national force outside the country and people reciprocate with trust, solidarity, and respect. We have become one of the major centers transforming the modern world according to peaceful and democratic principles.” Those words sound so poignant and ironical today in the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s “execution” of the mercenary leader in the context of Ukraine war and the uncertain and troubling future of the Wagner group in Africa and Syria. As soon as Gorbachev ended his speech and closed the folder containing the sheets of paper with a clap, HS has simultaneously pressed the shutter, timing the click with the clap of the folder. HS recalled: “as soon as I took that one picture the KGB guard standing on my left behind the camera … punched me on my back.” But wasting no time to assess the pain, his instinct was to run away as fast as possible to save his film from confiscation. As he fled down the carpeted stairs of the Kremlin, he saw all the other journalists and photographers waiting outside, who just realized that HS got the scoop, so they raised their middle finger and cursed at Liu. Eager to process the film to send back to AP’s clients, HS ran to his car: “I saw the Soviet Union flag coming down and the Russian Federation flag went up, and I was driving madly to go back to the bureau.” Liu said, the processed picture was sharp enough and the folder formed a nice closing movement despite the low speed of the exposure. That “Picture” made the “front page of practically all papers next day around the world — end of the Soviet Union.”
There was a side story symbolical of the demise of the Soviet Union: when Gorbachev was about to sign his resignation document his fountain pen went dry without ink, so the CNN President Tom Johnson lent him his own Montblanc to complete the signature. What a symbol! We can wonder, if Donald Trump famously used a thick Sharpie to apply his megalomaniac signature, some 32 years later in the Kremlin what kind of (made-in-China?) pen will Vladimir Putin use to sign the cease-fire with Ukraine?
HS Liu’s Retrospective Exhibition “LENS ERA PEOPLE” is at the new museum MAP (Museum of Art Pudong) of Shanghai – June-October 2023
Liu Heung Shing’s book: “A Life in a Sea of Red”, published by Steidl Verlag; 286 pages (May 2019). ISBN: 978-3958295452