Photographer Liu Heung Shing was at Tiananmen Square when “all hell broke loose” on June 4, 1989, the day the Chinese government sent tanks and soldiers into Beijing to quell a pro-democracy protest.
At the time, Liu was working for the Associated Press in the Chinese capital. He had been covering the protest at Tiananmen since its start in May, when students had erected a wall with posters and banners advocating political change. In addition to capturing the aftermath of the protest, he also covered its beginning: the speeches, the rock concerts, the sense of optimism.
As one of few photojournalists of Chinese descent covering China for the foreign press, Liu had a unique perspective on the country he called home.
From young Chinese couples disco dancing to a man outside Beijing’s Forbidden City holding out a Coca-Cola bottle shortly after the drink was reintroduced to the market in 1981, his powerful pictures challenged stereotypes and got below the surface of what was being covered by foreign outlets. His photos were often the only window into a country that was still largely closed to the world.
Now 68, Liu has compiled his images into a book, A Life in a Sea of Red, which includes the work he did across 40 years as a photojournalist in China and Russia. The title is a riff off a Chinese proverb about perseverance in tumultuous times: 苦海余生, alive in a bitter sea.
Witness to history
Liu was born in Hong Kong in 1951, when it was still a British colony, but he spent his early years living in mainland China with his mother. Over his career, he worked for several Western media outlets, including Time and Life.
“I photographed historical moments,” he says, “but I still focused my lens on the daily lives of the people, which is much more enduring.”
He preferred to train his camera on everyday folk rather than leaders and dignitaries, believing those images gave a better sense of what was happening in the countries he covered. Many of his photographs depict hope and humanity amid the hardships of communist rule.
In Afghanistan, Liu photographed Soviet troops pulling out of the country, and the subsequent storming of Kabul’s former presidential palace by the mujahideen. In the final days of the Soviet Union, he witnessed the “Leningrad” sign replaced by “St. Petersburg” and covered a coal miners’ strike in Ukraine.
One of his most enduring images from Russia captures the moment when Mikhail Gorbachev finished his resignation speech, marking the end of the Soviet Union on Dec. 25, 1991.
The image showed the papers blurred and Gorbachev looking defeated. It was part of an Associated Press series that won Liu the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
“I had one chance to get the shot,” he says.
Liu wanted to focus on the moment when Gorbachev threw down the papers and ended his speech because it would symbolize the end of the Soviet Union.
But he wanted to show the motion itself, so he used a slower shutter speed of 1/30 second.
“It was a calculated technical risk,” Liu says. “The slow shutter speed could just have easily resulted in an entirely blurred picture.”
A unique perspective
As one of few photographers to have extensively documented two of the world’s major communist powers, Liu developed deep insight into how political dogma affects people’s day-to-day lives.
Liu himself came from the landowning class that faced persecution in mainland China in the late 1940s and 1950s. His early childhood endowed him with some knowledge about communism and “how it creates inequality and absurdity according to a new norm.”
After attending kindergarten and three years of primary school in mainland China, he moved to Hong Kong and did not return to mainland China until after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, sensing that big shifts were about to happen.
One of Liu’s most poignant images from China was taken in 1981 and shows students peacefully studying under the streetlights of Tiananmen Square.
So familiar are images of the square from the 1989 protest and crackdown that it takes a moment to register that there is nothing sinister here, just stillness.
“For any photographer, you can’t not have your own world view and cultural view, and therefore your own interpretation,” Liu says. “The Americans would have never looked at their country the way that Robert Frank or all these European photographers did.”
In that sense, Liu’s contributions to the plethora of images from post-Mao China offer a unique insider’s perspective.
Today, stories about China, Russia, and the United States still dominate the news cycle, and Liu’s work is a reminder of how the past informs the present.
“With this book, I want to find a way to mix these two self-evidently quite important stories,” Liu says of his China and Russia coverage. “They might be stories about the last quarter of the 20th century but can very much still dominate the stories of the 21st.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.