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Remembering Charlie Cole Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

13 September 2019

Last week Charlie Cole died of sepsis in Bali, Indonesia, where he had lived for over 15 years. He was 64.

One of four photojournalists who captured the Tank Man during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Cole won the 1989 World Press Photo of the Year for his photo shot from the balcony of his hotel while working for Newsweek. He had to hide the roll of film from a Chinese security detail in the bathroom's toilet tank.

Cole was always uncomfortable with the importance that image acquired because he felt it overshadowed the risks taken by and the resulting work of other photographers during the protests that day.

But he appreciated the Tank Man's courage. "I think his action captured peoples' hearts everywhere and when the moment came, his character defined the moment, rather than the moment defining him," Cole said. "He made the image. I was just one of the photographers. And I felt honored to be there."

'He made the image. I was just one of the photographers.'

His image, shot on a compact Nikon FM2 with ISO 400 color film at f4 on a 300mm lens, was composed with the unknown man in the bottom left corner of the image confronting a line of tanks that stretched to the top right corner. Despite the stretched image quality, it was that composition which set Cole's image apart.

Cole was born in Bonham, Texas. His father, a chaplain in the Air Force, was stationed at Paterson, the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defence Command in Colorado Springs, where Cole grew up.

He graduated from the University of Texas in Denton with a degree in journalism in 1978. When his father was posted to Japan, Cole moved back to Colorado Springs, becoming a stringer for the wire agencies. He soon landed a full-time position on the Colorado Springs Sun newspaper where he won a National Press Photographers Association award.

From his father, Cole developed an in-depth knowledge of U.S. military history, equipment and operations in the Pacific. Not to mention a valuable set of contacts in Asia.

So in August 1980, he and his friend Steve Gardner flew to Japan to cover Asian economic and political developments as freelancers. They put on photo exhibitions to publicize their work but discovered that being English speaking photographers was their biggest asset.

Cole's association with Newsweek came after spending 1984-1985 traveling to military bases in the Pacific with Gardner.

He shot for Newsweek, Time and The New York Times as well. He also covered the 1985 People Power Revolution that deposed Ferdinand Marcos and restored democracy to the Philippines.

He was out of commission for a while in the mid-1990s when his Harley Davidson hit an open car door in Tokyo and he shattered his left leg. He nearly lost it to amputation but he spent the rest of his life in constant pain.

He moved to Jakarta and then to Bali where he lived with his wife Rosanna, making a living in commercial photography. His portfolio of the work he did there speaks of an other-worldly beauty unthreatened by tyrants or tanks.

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