Photos of the Tiananmen Square protests through the lens of a student witness

Tiananmen Square Protest in Beijing in 1989.
Tiananmen Square Protest in Beijing in 1989.PHOTO: JIAN LIU
Wounded plainclothes officers on West Chang’An Avenue after Chinese forces clashed with students while enforcing martial law, during the Tiananmen Square Protest in Beijing in 1989.
Wounded plainclothes officers on West Chang’An Avenue after Chinese forces clashed with students while enforcing martial law, during the Tiananmen Square Protest in Beijing in 1989.PHOTO: JIAN LIU
A student practicing qigong, the age-old practice of cultivating energy flow, while on a hunger strike during the Tiananmen Square Protest in Beijing in 1989.
A student practicing qigong, the age-old practice of cultivating energy flow, while on a hunger strike during the Tiananmen Square Protest in Beijing in 1989.PHOTO: JIAN LIU
Military vehicles burning on West Chang’An Avenue during the Tiananmen Square Protest in Beijing in May of 1989.
Military vehicles burning on West Chang’An Avenue during the Tiananmen Square Protest in Beijing in May of 1989.PHOTO: JIAN LIU

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - Jian Liu has kept 60 rolls of film hidden from public view for three decades.

He was a 20-year-old fashion design student in Beijing in the spring of 1989 when a student-led pro-democracy movement drew thousands of supporters to Tiananmen Square. Captivated by the spirit of the movement, he photographed the protests for about 50 days.

Mr Liu said he had been exhilarated by the protesters' bold demands for greater freedom and an end to corruption and had set out to capture their enthusiasm and zeal.

"It made me think that this country would get better and better," he said.

Then, on June 4, 1989, the People's Liberation Army rolled into Beijing and opened fire at the activists and civilians, killing hundreds, possibly thousands.

That morning, the smell of blood lingered in the hot summer air. He said he saw about 20 bodies riddled with bullets lying on the floor of a hospital. He took some final photographs to bear witness, and then hastily walked away.

"I couldn't bear it," he said.

For years, he tried to forget the bloodshed he had seen and locked away his memories in the 60 rolls of film - about 2,000 photos - he had shot using an analog camera.

By releasing his images publicly, Mr Liu joins a small group of Chinese historians, writers, photographers and artists who have tried to chronicle the chapters in Chinese history that the Communist Party wants erased from public memory.

 
 
 
 
 

"Reflection is only possible in a democratic and peaceful place," he said. "Under autocratic rule, it is impossible for you to discuss this."

Mr Liu ran a photography studio in Beijing for years before moving to Los Angeles in 2016 to study English. He asked a friend to bring him the film negatives from China in March, and a month ago, after converting them into digital files, he revisited the images he had captured 30 years ago.

He had photographed the youthful faces of unarmed soldiers through the windows of their trucks.

"They were panic-stricken and probably had no idea what was happening in Beijing," he said, adding that he thought they were perhaps no older than 20.

But nothing prepared him for the carnage when soldiers shot into the crowds. At a hospital, he said, he saw people who had been shot dead, their shoulders shattered and heads smashed. He put his camera away out of a sense of respect.

"Taking those photos is too disrespectful to them," he said, referring to the people whose bodies had been mutilated. "I took photos of people whose bodies could still be considered complete."

"Whether they were students or residents, pro-democracy activists or even what the Communist Party calls thugs, these young people should not have died," he said. "They should not have been killed by bullets. This cannot be justified in any way."

In the days after the crackdown, Mr Liu did not dare leave his house as armed soldiers swarmed the city. The authorities later arrested thousands of people suspected of being dissidents and sentenced many to prison.

"Those days passed by in a blur," he said. "Everyone walked with their head lowered, up till today."

Now 50, Mr Liu decided to publicly release the images with the help of Humanitarian China, a California-based organisation that gives grants to impoverished dissidents and their families.

He said he had been motivated after he realised that his teenage daughter, who had been going to school in China until 2016, had never heard about the massacre.

Many young Chinese are similarly unaware, the result of the Chinese government's largely successful campaign to silence discussion of the violent crackdown.

"The Chinese Communist Party is building a government based on a lie," he said. "It's very afraid that more people would know the truth. So I decided to put this out."