Tim Page's Vietnam War
Oct 17 2013
Tim Page (right) with Sean Flynn, shot by Mike Herr, author of Dispatches, at the mouth of the Perfume River.
Tim Page is a photojournalist of the old school. He arrived in Saigon, South Vietnam, in 1965, when he was 20 years old. Over the next few years, Tim saw enough Agent Orange and Viet Cong to last anyone a lifetime, but he didn't stop going to dangerous places and taking incredible photos.
After Vietnam, Tim freelanced for Rolling Stone while travelling the world, with stopovers in Laos, Cambodia, Bosnia, and elsewhere. In 2009 he was a UN Photographic Peace Ambassador in Afghanistan. He has set up charity organizations like the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation, which honors the legacy of journalists who died covering wars in that region through workshops and tutoring programs, and mentored young photographers throughout Southeast Asia. Oh, and he’s the author of nine books, including the widely acclaimed Requiem, a collection of pictures from photographers who died in the Vietnam War.
I recently got the chance to share a joint with Tim and talk about his time in the Vietnam War, his time in the world since then, and the impending doom of photojournalism.
Choppers arrive to evacuate casualties after a convoy was ambushed on its way to relieve the Duc Co Special Forces camp.
VICE: Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
Tim Page: No, I had no idea. When I finally left Europe I was planning to be in Australia for Christmas, 1962. I got as far as Lahore in West Pakistan. After I left England for Europe, I worked at the Heineken brewery and a chewing gum factory. I worked as a chambermaid, sous-chef, and also smuggled hash from the Khyber region in Pakistan. I had 15 pounds to get to Australia when I left Europe.
Fifteen pounds of hash?!
No, 15 pounds cash. We sold blood in Greece; I was also an extra in a film in Bombay. I gradually sold off all my possessions—I was down to like two sets of clothes. I’d sold everything else: the cameras, my clothes, even our entire plastic cutlery set... I sold my Kombi van to a bunch of crooked Sikhs—that enabled me to fly to Thailand via Burma. I had a really freaky month in Burma. When I ended up getting to Thailand I sold cod liver oil pills, flashlight bulbs, cheap watches, and encyclopedias and taught English. We used to go up to Laos and buy ten cartons of French-style black tobacco cigarettes, which were about one dollar a carton, and we’d come back to Bangkok and sell them for a dollar a pack. During the second day in Laos I bumped into a few Americans that told me US Aid was hiring third-party nationals to run Lao crews.
Korean troops encounter terrified villagers sheltering from their helicopter assault in Bong Son, Vietnam, in June of 1966.
Was this before the war kicked off?
It was starting to pick up. America was probably losing one or two planes a week. I conned a job in the agricultural department for 160 bucks a month digging up jungle plants for the American housing compound gardens. I had a crew of Lao workers that would help me. When we got to where we were going to dig they would make a bong out of bamboo and we would all sit around and smoke before we went to work. I then started stringing (running film and copies back and forth, getting film developed, etc.) for United Press International and the war had started to pick up by then.
On one occasion the [radio] had burned out so in order to get a story out I had to ride my motorcycle towards the river crossing—I had the pictures and my mate had the copy. We hired a small boat, took the bike off on the other side in Thailand and rode to the Udorn Airbase. Two days later the bureau chief from Saigon came for his annual visit and said, “Hey kid, would you like a job?” Twenty-four hours later I had a blue telegram in my pigeon hole offering me 90 dollars a week to go straight to Saigon. I arrived lock, stock, and barrel, my motorcycle tied to the front of the cockpit door ahead of the first row of seats on an Air Laos DC-4. I wheeled my bike down the steps and I was in Vietnam!
How long were you in Saigon before heading into the field?
I think about ten days before I was sent to the middle of the country in the Mang Yang Pass where a Special Forces camp had been ambushed. They’d sent out a heavy recon group with trucks, machine guns, jeeps, and things. I was up there for three days. I helped the other GIs pick up all the Americans and mercenaries that had been killed. We ended up coming under seriously heavy fire from Viet Cong hidden in the bush. I don’t remember getting too many good pictures that day. I had no idea what was going on, it was a really weird situation.
What was your first time under fire like?
It was freaky. I had no idea what was going on, I had no idea how military things work; I was so green. I’d been in country ten days, my uniform was spotless, and my boots were still polished. Everyone was screaming military language.
Knowing what I know now, [I realize] Charlie knew exactly who we were, what we were doing, and where we were going. It wasn’t his policy to kill media; the media were doing his job for him by demoralizing the American population. As a matter of fact there was a guy that worked for the New York Times and Time, he was the Vietnamese bureau chief and he would somehow get correspondents out who were captured. After the war ended it came out that he was a colonel in the Viet Cong—the most senior spy they had.
A helicopter lifts Prince Norodom Ranariddh out of a political rally during the 1993 UN-sponsored elections in Cambodia.
Was that strategy correct? Did the media work in the Viet Cong’s favour?
I can say without a doubt the coverage did affect public opinion. Any war picture is an antiwar picture. I think it was the first and last war that has ever been reported totally openly. It was the first war with television, the first war in color. It was the first with live radio and the first time your pictures were transmitted virtually the same time they were taken—not quite, but within 24 hours. There had never been that kind of instant coverage of conflict. I’m not saying photography stopped the Vietnam War, I think it contributed to swaying public opinion. It seemed to have a creeping effect on the American psyche when virtually every small town had somebody coming home in a coffin. It forced it to an end or helped it come to an end.
You left Vietnam in 1967 and returned again in 1968. What were you working on during that time?
I photographed the Six-Day War. I was assigned to the Arab side so I spent six weeks in Lebanon and Jordan, which was pretty freaky. I then spent almost two and half months in Saint-Tropez, France, involved in a massive acid happening. They had put on this Picasso play in a big marquee and had this British fusion rock group called the Soft Machine playing. I got totally involved in this weird theatre. Soft Machine was walking around with a big bottle of Sandoz acid giving away hits… it was just mind-blowing. That was kind of my blowout after six weeks of war. Then I went back to New York where I started covering rock ’n’ roll and ended up getting busted with the Doors in New Haven, Connecticut.
An irate Jim Morrison about to be dragged off stage mid-concert in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1968. He was singing “The End.”
That’s when you were locked up with Jim Morrison. What was that like?
It was one of those things… I mean, JESUS this is unreal. I’m sitting in a cell with all these people sitting around: my girlfriend, who worked for LIFE magazine; another magazine correspondent; Morrison; two or three drunks. I mean… What are we doing here! This is not even a movie script! He was pissed because he had been maced backstage by the police after some boyfriend complained that his girlfriend had been giving Jim head backstage. They ended up busting into his dressing room and macing him just before he had to go out and perform. Obviously he was stoned out of his mind, but being maced is a bummer, it’s a lot worse than tear gas. We were so strung out because when we got into the paddy wagon we realized we had all these fucking drugs on us. We ended up eating all these joints and other drugs he had. By the time we got to the jail we were absolutely out of our minds. They ended up taking Jim out quite quickly; I guess they pulled a big attorney. Never saw him again. It ended up on six pages in LIFE and then LIFE lost the negatives, which was the worse part of the whole thing.
And then it was back to Vietnam for Mini-Tet?
Mini-Tet was very expensive for the media; we lost eight people in one week. The enemy had proven to the world that they could blow up anything, occupy the American embassy and take the districts of provincial capitals and basically shut the whole lot down. As a photographer you couldn’t go wrong, you could virtually guarantee seeing action anywhere you went and your images would be sellable.
A victim of a booby trap is picked up by Marines from the newly arrived American task force in the countryside south of Da Nang, Vietnam, in September of 1965.
In your book Page After Page, you wrote about one night in 1965 where you were stationed at an outpost with a Special Forces group. You were overrun in the middle of the night and you, personally, had to defend yourself. What's the line between combatant and observer?
When it gets to that kind of situation, in the heat of battle, the enemy doesn’t have time to differentiate between you wearing a black T-shirt and a camera and the guy with the Special Forces badge on sitting next to you; he’s not going to see the difference. That kind of situation there was… I had no choice. In the heat of the battle nothing is making sense, your only thought is, I don’t want to be here, but unfortunately you can’t press a button and delete yourself from the situation. Well you can but it’s called dead.
I had been issued a weapon and a bunch of clips when I arrived and was told if the shit goes down that’s where you’re going to be, and I was there. I suppose because we’re photographers we’re not bad shots. I hit the guy with three rounds right in the chest, right where you’re supposed to. He wasn’t wearing any body armor.
I have no feeling about it… I should have feeling. It was just a really bad night. I had no choice. There was no alternative. You can’t turn the clock back, you can’t alter history. I’ve lit enough incense for him, I’ve meditated on it. I’ve never had to use a weapon again.
Another thing you talk about in your book is a Rolex watch you owned that would get lost each time you were hit; in one instance it was returned two years later. Do you still have that Rolex?
No. A hooker in Manchester got it. I was photographing a rock group called the Happy Mondays the 70s. We went to the Hacienda and got wasted. I picked up this hooker and she ended up with the Rolex.
A nun walks past a North Vietnamese Army corpse after an abortive attempt to breach a prisoner of war compound that ended in a massacre at the nearby Dong Lach refugee camp in 1969.
You were wounded a number of times in Vietnam. What injuries did you sustain?
I was hit four times, plus a motorbike smash, a train wreck, and a car accident where a vehicle went through a barbed wire fence on Boxing Day and cut the top of my head open. The last injury was a landmine on the Vietnamese/Cambodian border. I was blown over after stepping out of the helicopter. I don’t recall a whole lot. I remember it being otherworldly. It had blown me over and I was having problems functioning but I didn’t really know what had happened. I staggered back to the chopper, changed lenses on my camera and shot a few more frames; I can’t remember much after that, I woke up on a gurney in hospital waiting to go into prep. I don’t know how many hours after my ten-hour surgery I woke up, but I had this incredible pain in my penis where they had inserted a catheter. I think that was more painful than what had happened to my head.
How long was your recovery?
All up probably eight months, then a year separating my second lot of reconstructive surgery on my head. I was flown to Walter Reed in Washington for two weeks—I was the first-ever civilian in there—then up to a rehab center in New York where I was inpatient for four months. Towards the end of those four months they started letting me out on weekends so I went to Woodstock.
You went to Woodstock as an inpatient?
Yeah just for the day. Well, not even that. I caught three songs. I had a hole in my head where my skull was missing and I was limping around on two sticks. I wasn’t in much shape to cover a rock concert; I felt like I was going to die [laughs].
Many members of the media weren’t as fortunate. Case in point: you’re looking to start filming your documentary Lost Brothers again later this year, which details your search for lost colleagues. What’s happening with that?
The search has never really stopped. I did the first film, Danger on the Edge of Town in 1989-90. That turned up more questions than it answered. In total, 37 media personnel disappeared in Cambodia—20 of them, including my friends Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, in the months of April and May, 1970. Some of their fates have been resolved. They all had very bad endings. The search is to resolve their fates, not to find their remains—after 40-odd years that is probably not going to happen. I just want to, or need to, resolve their fates for my own peace of mind. The resolution would be the closing of the circle that sparked Requiem.
A brother despairing over the death of his sister after an attack by helicopter gunships during the Mini-Tet offensive of May 1968.
A wounded American soldier is bought to a landing zone north of Saigon in March, 1966.
It’s obviously been an incredible journey. Given your experiences, what advice would you give to aspiring war photographers today?
Don’t. Earlier today I sat and looked at a colleague’s photos from his recent trip to Cairo. In the 60s he would have been able to sell five or six of those pictures in a spread and possibly a cover for 3,000, 4,000 bucks and get another gig on top of that. He was paid 250 euros from one of the agencies and got 25 euros from EPA to use ten images—and these went on the front page of the New York Times and various other papers. How can you live on that? I wouldn’t want to enter this game now.
Wars have changed as well. I shouldn’t really say this, but Vietnam was fun… it was a fun time. We would go to the gun range, shoot M-60s out of helicopter doors and twin machine guns off the front of swift boats, smoke great opium and could get a cold beer. It was dangerous when you got fucking hit, you shat yourself and pissed yourself, but the rewards were quite reasonable. In terms of a place to have a war, Vietnam was a great place. If you look at Iraq, it’s awful. Afghanistan is a beautiful place but what a horrible place to fight a war. Vietnam had good food and beautiful woman, [in Iraq or Afghanistan] you can’t see the women or get a beer. Bosnia was worse… Unpronounceable people in unpronounceable places; freezing cold in the winter, hot as fuck in the summer and shit food.
Follow Bradley on Twitter: @HennyWilliams
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