What Chimerica Tells Us About the Photograph

man standing in front of a line of four tanks
The Tank Man by Jeff Widener for the Associated Press

This year’s Susan Smith Blackburn prize, given annually to women who write plays for the English speaking theater, went to British playwright Lucy Kirkwood for her imaginative account of a photograph and its contradictions in her play Chimerica. Based on an actual photograph, the main action of Kirkwood’s play is an American photojournalist’s unyielding quest to unlock the mystery of a photograph taken by him during the 1989 student revolution and military crackdown in Tiananmen Square. In the photograph in question a slender man, who goes on to be labeled the “Tank Man,” stands in front of a line of military tanks rolling into the Square. While it is something of a truism that the theater is, as a character in Don Quixote says, “the mirror of human life,” sometimes theater can serve as a path-breaking reflection on another art form.

There are six recognized versions of the photograph of the Tank Man. The most famous of them, AP photographer Jeff Widener’s photo of the Tank Man—nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1990—was used for the publicity of Chimerica. The unknown man was photographed hours after the military crackdown on the protestors at the Square where thousands were shot and killed. Something about the forlorn figure defying the might of military tanks speaks powerfully to our faith in the heroism of the common man standing to defend human life and freedom. In an email to the NYTimes on the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Jeff Widener recounts his experience of taking the famous photograph from the Beijing Hotel which offered the best vantage point to photograph the goings on in Tiananmen Square; he photographed dead and wounded bodies and burned buses until the tanks came in and a man ran out in front of them. The identity of the subject has never become known; it appears the man was dragged away by onlookers, presumably saved and disappeared into anonymity, his obscurity perhaps aided by the Chinese government’s concerted efforts not to publicly acknowledge this episode in any way. A Time magazine article celebrated him as the “unknown everyman” symbolizing all the unsung, unknown creators of history, who had luckily, accidentally wandered into the vision of a camera.

The pioneering portrait photographer, Diane Arbus’s statement may as well be true of the photo at the center of Chimerica, “A picture is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” Driven by a stubborn sense of vocation, the protagonist Joe Schofield is bent upon finding out the identity of the Tank Man and the play puts forward a central moral question: Can an iconic photograph obscure as much as it unveils and liberates? The ambiguities around Schofield’s drive to know dog his journey throughout: is he pursuing a follow-up story on the photograph’s twentieth anniversary to revive a moment of personal glory (his friend accuses him of trying to “recycle an old photograph and call it a crusade”) or is it for a higher purpose: “I think people need to know there is heroism in the world.” Acting on a tip, Schofield believes the Tank Man has immigrated to the United States and is currently in New York City. Schofield’s dream is to bring the Tank Man back to the public consciousness, and provide his own narrative to explain contemporary China, as he tells his editor: “We do a special. On China. Its history, its future. The centerpiece is a shot of the Tank Man, sitting in Central Park. Alive and well.”

The play offers its own fictionalized coda to a famous photograph and in so doing also advances a literary intervention in the new era of global relations between America and China. The title itself, as Kirkwood tells us, is borrowed from Niall Ferguson who fashioned the portmanteau term in his book The Ascent of Money. (Ferguson writes that the term was coined “To describe the combination of the Chinese and American economies, which together had become the key driver of the global economy.”)

Schofield’s story intertwines with that of his friend, Zhang Lin in Beijing, who is consumed by memories of his young wife shot dead during the uprising in 1989. The play moves back and forth between the fateful months of summer 1989 where the eighteen-year-old Lin and his pregnant young wife take part in the protests. In the present day Lin listens to his sick neighbor cough through the wall of his apartment and undertakes a crusade against the smog in the air. He posts an article online about party corruption and the air pollution in Beijing which gets him arrested, tortured, and placed on a surveillance list.

The play cuts back and forth between Joe’s pursuit and tableaus of Lin’s quiet anguish in the historical aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacres. In many ways Lin is the foil to the American’s reductive approach to the revolution and the famous photograph. When Schofield despairs that twenty years on “The tank man is dead in more ways than one,” Zhang Lin exclaims, “What are you—you want to reduce this to one man? There were a hundred-thousand of us, Joe, we are not dead!”

 

Thus, photography as a bridge between documentation and art gives rise to other forms of narratives that aspire to transcend the purely visual. Who is the Tank Man? Did he ultimately survive the massacre? Is he still alive?

 

The play begs the question: can we term as art an image of a moment in a revolution serendipitously captured for the purposes of journalism? Reframing the question, Susan Sontag says in her book On Photography, “Superseding the issue of whether photography is or is not an art is the fact that photography heralds (and creates) new ambitions for the arts.” Thus, photography as a bridge between documentation and art gives rise to other forms of narratives that aspire to transcend the purely visual. Who is the Tank Man? Did he ultimately survive the massacre? Is he still alive? What was he carrying in the plastic bags as he stood before the tanks? Kirkwood takes these questions and answers them in the course of the play ending with the quiet climax of a personal tragedy that propels an ordinary man into the path of gigantic military tanks.

Chimerica shows how an enlivening cross-pollination between different forms and media not only deepens our pleasure, intellectual and otherwise, in the play, but also pulls us toward a discovery of and immersion in other cultural and aesthetic worlds. Cross-aesthetic influences between theater and other arts, especially painting, have a rich tradition and history. In her book, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism, scholar Toril Moi points to the “intermingling of painting and theater” from the French Revolution through the nineteenth century in which painters painted scenes from plays and playwrights based their plays on paintings, and “images circulated among poets, painters and playwrights.” (In recent times, Ayad Akhtar employs Velazquez’s painting “Juan de Pareja” to show how racial tropes from the past can return to haunt the present in his play Disgraced.)  

A play can subtly change the motionless theater within a photograph, displacing the subject into the surrounding world, giving him a life outside the frame. When he finally reveals himself, the Tank Man confesses to Joe, “Your photograph made me look important. I was scared of it. He was never me. Only a man who looked a bit like me.”

In her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag memorably argues for the need for deeper knowledge in order to understand a photograph. Against the pervasive belief that the frozen story in a photograph is self-explanatory—“It tells you everything you need to know”—Sontag quips, “But of course it doesn’t tell us everything we need to know.” Warning of the tendency of the image to slide into cliché, a metonymic short hand to capture an immensely complicated disaster or a continent, or an era, Sontag writes:

The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering. Hideous deaths (by genocide, starvation, and epidemic) are most of what people retain of the whole clutch of iniquities and failures that have taken place in postcolonial Africa.

Although Kirkwood’s play is a fictional account of the fortunes of the people associated with an actual photograph, its stunning reversals and moments of hubris upend and militate against conventional notions of what the photograph means and our collective desire to imbue a single photographic image with the totality of meaning.

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