The first impression given by the photograph “Totem” by Stuart Franklin, taken on June 5, 1989 in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, is of the line of four tanks. Very quickly the eye is drawn along the line to the solitary figure standing in the foreground. The lone figure is the focus of the picture because he is standing for the rights of individuals against the power of the military state. The man stands with his back to the camera; his posture is erect but somehow unassuming. He carries bags in each hand as if returning from some morning errands. The stark whiteness of his shirt makes him easily distinguished. In the background, beyond the tanks and in the shade of some unseen trees stands a bus, stationary and deserted. It appears to be dirty, possibly burned-out, a victim of the previous night’s violence. The man stands as a totem to the protest that has occurred, a solitary figure, but one that represents all the discontent that has mounted over the years.
The predominant colour in the photograph is grey. The tarmac lies like a uniform sheet over the surface of the square. Grey represents a lack of individuality; it is the colour of uniformity. The tanks, camouflaged with green and brown, blend into the grey canvas. The few flashes of yellow: the bus’ roof, the lane markings, the stars on the tanks are sullied and offer no joy to the image: it is the yellow of cowardice in the presence of such enormous military might. The man’s white shirt offers stark contrast to the uniform greyness. The white shirt stands out as a symbol of innocence and purity, but also offers a sign of apparent surrender to this enormous strength. He is the lone herald of innocence and peace in this dismal scene. His pitiful size, emphasized by his tiny shadow, demonstrates the hopelessness of his attempt to confront the huge might of the repressive military force. The tank, huge in itself, is not alone but has three fellows ranged behind it, with more waiting further back.
The man faces the tank making it impossible to see his face; he remains nameless and faceless, inscrutable. He acts alone, not part of a heaving mass of humanity, in contrast to the traditional Western view of Chinese people. The isolation of this man adds to the impact of his protest, especially in Communist-controlled China where the individual is suppressed in favour of group action. One wonders what his thoughts are as he confronts the driver of the first tank and engages him in a fifteen minute conversation. The man seems to be there almost accidentally. He is carrying what appear to be shopping bags with him. Has he just decided to make his protest on a whim on his way home from the store? Many questions remain unanswered in this photograph. The incongruity of the one-man protest makes it all the more poignant.
Franklin, the photographer, has captured in the road markings the nature of communism in practice. The white lane markings are straight lines that echo the row of tanks, showing the single path that all must take. The yellow lines also run parallel and follow the direction of most of the white arrows. It seems that all roads lead in the same direction, except two. The first lane is the one the stranded bus waits in. Its path has been blocked by the repression of the previous evening. The second is the lane occupied by the man. He has chosen an alternative path. This image is emphasized by the fact that his foot crosses the central double yellow lines which are universally recognized as lines one should not cross.
The photograph includes many symbols, though perhaps not traditional ones. The man symbolizes individuality and free will. He chooses to make his protest in the face of terrible odds and shows his strength and faith in the process. The tanks are obvious symbols of military might. The excessive show of strength, using four tanks plus more in reserve, demonstrates the exaggerated repression shown in the control of this student protest. The tank standing behind the others is an ominous warning to any would-be protesters that the government has plenty of strength in reserve. The abandoned bus serves a double purpose: first to symbolize the rest of the population and second to show that attempts at insurgence will be swiftly put down. The arrows and lane markings symbolize the government’s attempt at guiding the people down a pre-selected route, both literally and politically.
The purpose of the photograph was to shed light on the mood in Tiananmen Square the day after the massacre of over a thousand people by government forces. Franklin attempts to explain the situation to the waiting western world after a virtual news black-out. Taken in the middle of the next morning, the picture demonstrates the futility of the Chinese people’s protest against an intransient government. The Western world seeks an understanding of the events; this photograph offers some explanation of it. The photograph shows hope and hopelessness at the same time. Hope in that the protester has, so far, not been harmed. Hopelessness, because one knows that, ultimately, this one-man protest has no chance of success against such great military force. Politically, “Totem” confirms Western belief in Chinese communist repression. Ironically, those same Communists used this very picture as propaganda; apparently it displays their humanitarian response to popular protest!
Historically this photo could be of so many situations where the small man tries to take on the military might of an oppressor. In this case, as in many, one man can make a difference despite the seemingly overwhelming odds. This lone protester was never located, or punished, and his protest gave hope to many both in China and throughout the world. His protest was not in vain: a few months later, in November, protesters in Germany pulled down the Berlin wall. Then the Communist governments of several Eastern European states were toppled. This photograph exists as an example of the power of one. The man is, indeed, a totem to all the oppressed people of the world.