Photosynthesis converts light energy into biologically useful chemical energy vital to life on Earth. The initial reaction of photosynthesis takes place in photosystem II (PSII), a 700-kilodalton homodimeric membrane protein complex that catalyses photo-oxidation of water into dioxygen through an S-state cycle of the oxygen evolving complex (OEC). The structure of PSII has been solved by X-ray diffraction (XRD) at 1.9 ångström resolution, which revealed that the OEC is a Mn4CaO5-cluster coordinated by a well defined protein environment. However, extended X-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS) studies showed that the manganese cations in the OEC are easily reduced by X-ray irradiation, and slight differences were found in the Mn–Mn distances determined by XRD, EXAFS and theoretical studies. Here we report a ‘radiation-damage-free’ structure of PSII from Thermosynechococcus vulcanus in the S1 state at a resolution of 1.95 ångströms using femtosecond X-ray pulses of the SPring-8 ångström compact free-electron laser (SACLA) and hundreds of large, highly isomorphous PSII crystals. Compared with the structure from XRD, the OEC in the X-ray free electron laser structure has Mn–Mn distances that are shorter by 0.1–0.2 ångströms. The valences of each manganese atom were tentatively assigned as Mn1D(iii), Mn2C(iv), Mn3B(iv) and Mn4A(iii), based on the average Mn–ligand distances and analysis of the Jahn–Teller axis on Mn(iii). One of the oxo-bridged oxygens, O5, has significantly longer distances to Mn than do the other oxo-oxygen atoms, suggesting that O5 is a hydroxide ion instead of a normal oxygen dianion and therefore may serve as one of the substrate oxygen atoms. These findings provide a structural basis for the mechanism of oxygen evolution, and we expect that this structure will provide a blueprint for the design of artificial catalysts for water oxidation.