In 1989, Jeff Widener captured an image of a lone man, shopping bag in hand, facing off with a tank, and, by extension, the entire Chinese government. Since celluloid has been replaced with SD cards and “developing” film requires just a few mouse clicks, the language describing Widener’s equipment is about as bulky as the gear itself. He used a “Nikon 400mm F5.6 EDIF internal focus lens with a Nikon teleconverter with a focal length of around 800mm” and “Fuji 100 ISO film.”
Widener describes hiding film in his underwear as well as pulling it out of a damaged camera with pliers. In addition to the technical challenges of getting it to the right places, the massive gear brought Widener unwanted attention from a censor-happy government. A quarter century later, relatively simple, tiny cameras gave documentary filmmakers in another square (and under another oppressive regime), boots-on-the-ground access to Egyptian revolutionaries.
The Square was filmed with DSLRs like the Canon 5D, which made it through airport security because (as director Jehane Noujaim describes) they “looked like photography cameras.” The deceivingly-small DSLRs granted the filmmakers near anonymity with their subjects, making it feel like the audience is “experiencing [the revolution] live.” While Noujaim credits modern equipment, she also says, “Just because you can film something—I mean, just because you have a pen doesn’t make you a writer.”
While equipment (and hairstyles!) have changed in the 25 years that PayReel’s sister company, Crew Connection, has been in business, some things are timeless. The Square and Tank Man are different in more ways than they are alike, but they have one element in common—compelling storytelling.
- The Square interview
- Daily Beast article
- Resource Magazine’s interview with Jeff Widener, Tank Man photographer.
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