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David Turnley: Tiananmen Square

June 4, 2014

A National Geographic story features the memories and photographs of photojournalists David (Stamps Associate Professor) and Peter Turnley, who covered the events of the student movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

David Turnley was in Paris when he got the call. His brother Peter was in Beijing to cover the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to China but was on the line with different, more exciting news. A small group of students had taken to the streets in protest in Tiananmen Square—and their numbers were swelling.

“I think something is happening here,” Peter told his brother. You need to cover this too, Peter urged.

What had started with a handful of students “soon turned into 10,000, and a few days after that, a million,” recalls Peter, all in support of greater political and personal freedoms. The year 1989 was a time of historic change in entrenched political systems like the Soviet Union and South Africa, and the Chinese students wanted to be part of it.

David flew out to cover the events as well, and as he walked among the million or more protesters who soon filled Tiananmen Square, “there was a sense of an elevated human spirit,” he says. “It was euphoric.”

That euphoria did not last long. The People’s Liberation Army was massing outside the city. The photographers followed some of the students as they traveled to the convoys to beg them not to interfere. When the army did crack down, David and Peter were there to photograph the brutal events and the generalized fear that followed.

National Geographic: Tiananmen Square Still Haunts Photographer Brothers After 25 Years

David Turnley: Tiananmen Square