INTERVIEW: Photographer covered Tiananmen protests just weeks into new job

Catherine Henriette recalls the challenge of learning a new role as the world watched the demonstrations unfold.
By Eric Kayne for RFA
2024.06.02
INTERVIEW: Photographer covered Tiananmen protests just weeks into new job People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers leap over a barrier in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, June 4, 1989, during clashes with pro-democracy protesters
Catherine Henriette/AFP

French photographer Catherine Henriette had just completed a master’s degree in Asian languages when she decided to visit China. 

She was hired by Agence France-Presse in April 1989 and almost immediately began photographing the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in China’s history. One month later, the Tiananmen Square crackdown began as the 29-year-old was still learning the new role. 

In an interview with Radio Free Asia’s Eric Kayne originally in French and translated to English, Henriette recalls the experience of covering the student demonstrations.

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A student protester tells soldiers to leave as crowds of pro-democracy demonstrators flood into central Beijing, June 3, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

RFA: What drew you to Tiananmen Square during the student democracy demonstrations in 1989? What was your initial impression of the atmosphere and the people involved?

Henriette: I was a photographer for Agence France-Presse at the time, so it was just my job that brought me to Tiananmen Square. My first impression was disbelief at what was happening before my eyes.

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Hundreds of thousands of Chinese gather in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, June 2, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

RFA: Can you describe your experience of photographing the events at Tiananmen Square? What challenges did you face as a photographer during such tumultuous times?

Henriette: It was a very joyful and very exhilarating moment. I was a beginner photographer so I had to learn quickly because the movement just kept growing and growing every day. The challenge was a  physical challenge. I had to hold on, because I was the only one taking photos for AFP. I was exhausted because it never stopped.

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A student applies plaster to the "Goddess of Democracy" statue in Tiananmen Square, May 30, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

RFA: Were there any particular moments or scenes that left a lasting impact on you? Could you share the story behind one of your most memorable photographs from that time?

Henriette: Every day was different. Perhaps the most incredible moment was when Zhao Ziyang came out of the Great Hall of the People to visit the students and try to talk with them. In a country like China, it was surreal.

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Workers sit in a bulldozer and shout slogans as they drive past the Forbidden City to support the student pro-democracy protest, May 25,1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

RFA: How do you believe your photographs from Tiananmen Square contributed to the broader narrative of the democracy demonstrations? Do you feel they helped to amplify the voices of the protesters?

Henriette: At the time, my photos were widely used in magazines and newspapers. So yes, I think that without knowing it, I contributed to making the movement known.

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To keep Chinese military forces out, buses block Jianguomen Avenue leading to Tiananmen Square on May 21, 1989, after martial law was proclaimed. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

RFA: Looking back, how do you feel about the role of photography in shaping historical memory, especially regarding events like the Tiananmen Square protests?

Henriette: Honestly, my only experience was with the events in Tiananmen Square. I was only 29 years old and I was just starting out in photography. I took my job at AFP in April 1989. I didn’t have enough experience in press photography to say whether it has the power to influence the course of history. But look at the photo of the man in front of the tanks (which I did not take) – it’s an image forever anchored in our minds. Therefore, yes, I think that photography can mark collective memory in its own way.

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Pro-democracy demonstrators raise their fists and flash victory signs as they stop a truck of soldiers on its way to Tiananmen Square, May 20, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

RFA: In what ways do you think the events you witnessed and captured at Tiananmen Square have influenced your approach to photography and storytelling throughout your career?

Henriette: It probably did influence my approach without me knowing it, but as I said, I was just starting my career as a photographer. I only did a few years of photojournalism, and of course being a photojournalist in China was a wonderful school for me. But since then I have evolved. I moved on to magazine photography and then to the more artistic photography that I still practice today.

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Student hunger strikers camp on top of buses parked in Tiananmen Square, May 19, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

RFA: Given the censorship and suppression of information surrounding the Tiananmen Square massacre, do you think it’s important for photographers and journalists to continue documenting and shedding light on such events?

Henriette: Of course, otherwise these events would be erased from history. In Chinese history books, there is no mention of Tiananmen.

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Paramedics stretcher a Beijing University student hunger striker from Tiananmen Square during mass pro-democracy protests, May 17,1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

RFA: Reflecting on your experiences at Tiananmen Square, what message or lessons would you like to convey to future generations about the power of photography in bearing witness to history?

Henriette: I would like to tell them not to take too many unnecessary risks. The “Tank Man” photo, which traveled all over the world, was taken from the balcony of the Beijing Hotel the day after the crackdown in the square. Every photo you take must carry a message. You have to find it. I think that a good photographer is the one who will think about that.

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A Chinese student on a hunger strike offers ice cream to People's Liberation Army soldiers in front of the Great Hall of the People while President Yang Shangkun meets with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, May 15, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

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More than 5,000 students and residents participating in a hunger strike gather at Tiananmen Square, May 14, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

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With a banner reading “Liberty or Death” pro-democracy protesters gather at Tiananmen Square, May 14, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

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Beijing University student hunger strikers rest in Tiananmen Square, May 14, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

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Chinese students from several universities gather at Tiananmen Square before the official visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, May 13, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

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A university student writes a name on a ballot paper to choose their delegates for a dialogue with Chinese authorities, May 3, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

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Chinese students discuss the next steps of their protest movement at their living quarters at Beijing University, May 1, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

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A student leader quotes the Chinese constitution about the freedom of press, people's right to demonstrate, rally and shout slogans, April 27, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

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Pro-democracy student protesters sit face to face with policemen outside the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square on April 22, 1989, at the funeral of former Communist Party leader and liberal reformer Hu Yaobang during an unauthorized demonstration to mourn his death. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

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People crowd the base of the Monument to the People's Heroes at Tiananmen Square to look at photos of former Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, clipped from foreign magazines, April 21,1989. Hu’s death on April 15 triggered an unprecedented wave of pro-democracy demonstrations. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

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A funeral wreath with the portrait of former Chinese Communist Party leader and liberal reformer Hu Yaobang is displayed as thousands gather at the People's Heroes monument in Tiananmen Square during an unauthorized demonstration on April 19, 1989, to mourn Hu's death. (Catherine Henriette/AFP)

Translated by Claire McCrea.

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Michael R Betzer
Jun 03, 2024 12:20 PM

Long live the Republic of China, and the Kuomintang, the SOLE legitimate government for all of China.