My Crash Course in Living Through the Lens

JUNE 1989: Jeffrey and I have been together for less than six months. During this time I’ve been given an unexpected crash course in the frenetic lifestyle of a photojournalist, learning quickly what it’s like to live through the lens.

Time Magazine with photo of Aung San Suu KyiYou may remember that 1989 is the year seismic political events begin shaking governments and cultures all around the world.

In April Jeffrey navigates Rangoon’s tension-filled streets during martial law, and photographs Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, when she’s first placed under house arrest. This project is a good indicator of what is to come in this life that Jeffrey and I are now happily sharing (if you missed this story, you can read the details in my two earlier posts):

9/27/11 Beyond Rangoon–Part One

10/4/11 Beyond Rangoon–Part Two

Soon after Burma, in May and early June, Jeffrey spends multiple weeks in Beijing documenting China’s Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, capturing the passion and energy of China’s youth and its demands for change.

Photo of Democracy Movement

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, 1989

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

It’s an exhilarating and surreal time for me as I watch the evening news every night to see what is unfolding in Tiananmen Square, knowing Jeffrey is there at the front line of history.

I see hunger strikers and workers marching with outrageously bold placards, then witness the “Goddess of Democracy” being erected as a symbol of hope and freedom for the movement. With each new development, threats escalate from the Chinese government. Soon fiery warnings are blasted about the severe consequences protesters will face if they do not end the demonstration and leave the square.

Jeffrey is in a simmering pot of politics, power and impatience, and my jaw grows tighter each day knowing that it’s getting closer to bubbling over–especially in a country in which freedom has never been a priority and brutality has often been a solution. At that moment, the Democracy Movement is no longer just a surreal event half way around the world for me; it is palpably real.

Photo of soldiers in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China 1989, Democracy Movement

It’s then I realize I need to focus on my “own thing” while Jeffrey is gone, otherwise my twenty-three year old dark brown hair will soon be turning white. While Jeffrey is in Tiananmen Square, I spend hours out on the road cycling, distracting myself with Aspen’s intoxicating landscape, centering my attention on simply turning the cranks of my pedals and getting enough oxygen into my lungs, rather than worrying about whether the Chinese government will follow through with its threats. I also immerse myself in work and all the other things I love like reading, painting and writing. I still stay glued to the TV and scour every newspaper, but I realize I have no control over Jeffrey’s safety so I trust in his scrappy ability to navigate through upheaval and create images, while staying out of harm’s way.

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tianamen Square

I also can’t help but feel empathy for Jeffrey’s parents. Right before Jeffrey leaves for Beijing, I overhear one of the most endearing phone conversations I can ever remember. “You can’t forbid me to go,” Jeffrey says to his dad as gently as he can, a sweet, appreciative smile crossing his face. “You’ll just have to trust that I’ll be okay. Really. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” he says as tries to ease the concerns he hears on the other end of the line.

His dad’s fear says everything about the love his parents hold for Jeffrey, and immediately makes me understand who Jeffrey is from the ground up.

That same trepidation also makes me think about all the other journalists in the world, and all the spouses, families and friends in the wings supporting what each is doing…and most likely worrying–particularly those going into war zones. I’m thankful Jeffrey has not chosen that path.

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square is bad enough.

After nearly six weeks of peaceful demonstrations, the worst happens: China’s Democracy Movement tragically ends in bloodshed. On June 4th, the Chinese government orders the People’s Liberation Army to quash the movement and end all challenges to its power. Thousands of unarmed people are murdered, mowed down by bullets and tanks, and many more are injured as the PLA clears the square.

Photo of Tiananmen Square crackdown, Beijing, China 1989

Thankfully, Jeffrey is not one of them.

In a later post I will share the story of how, in an unusual twist of circumstances, Jeffrey sidesteps the June 4th massacre. I’m a firm believer that most things in life happen for a reason. This is no exception.


18 thoughts on “My Crash Course in Living Through the Lens

    • You are welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed this post. Thanks for taking the time to let me know. The Democracy Movement was an exhilarating and horrifying moment in history–not one to ever be forgotten.

  1. Becky – Your transparency is always breathtaking. Your journey was filled with love and fear, much like mine, though entirely different. Love allows us to endure many new situations, had we been asked, we would have said, “No way.” Thank you for sharing the intimate details of your life with Jeffery. In a way, it comforts me know there are so many other women choosing to stick by their man “no matter what.” LOL

  2. Some stories, I think, are given to us. I can only imagine how reflecting on these extraordinary photos, and the precarious political places they recall, brings you back to your own, clearly strong, survival tactics during Jeffrey’s absence.

    • Revisiting these moments and reflecting upon all the things Jeffrey and I have experienced, both together and apart, has not only been gratifying, but a good reminder about what is possible when we follow your instincts.

  3. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be in the midst of this momentous event in Chinese history – but thanks to Jeffrey’s photos and your writing, Becky, I feel as close to the action as I possibly could. Can’t wait to see and read more . . .

  4. Okay, these exciting installments are becoming somewhat annoying! I WANT MORE AND I WANT IT NOW! What I really want is to sit down and read your entire book at once, so I implore you to finish it so I can buy it and then devour it! Really great stuff, Becky.

  5. You are giving us live experience of those memories through your blog which we only read as part of world history. Great job! Can’t wait to see (read) how Jeffrey sidesteps the June 4th massacre.

    Jeffrey must write his autobiography now. I hope he has lots to share with we people. Again Hats Off to you & Jeffrey!!

    • That’s part of the reason I wanted to start this blog–to bring all these historic world events to people in a way they could experience on a human level (rather than reading about them in dry history books). I am in the process of writing all of Jeffrey’s stories into a book so you’ll be able to read more details and see many more photographs.

  6. We rely on these photos to tell the story, to put us there at the forefront of history, because we can’t be there ourselves. These photos are amazing. Jeffrey is one talented photojournalist and both of you are very brave to endure this. Fascinating story, wonderful post. Thanks!

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