Interview with war photographer Tim Page by Homer Nemenzo.
Tim Page in his home office 23/03/17. Photo by Jake Day.
In the early morning of March 30, 2017, two days after Cyclone Debbie hit the east coast of Central Queensland I found myself driving around through heavy rain and blistering wind. The visibility around me was so poor and I could hear the man on the radio advising all drivers to stay off the road as it was not safe. However, I was not about to stop or turn around and go home; I needed to meet a very special man, the man who escaped death numerous times to photograph the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, his name was Tim Page.
Tim Page was born on the 25th of May 1944 in Royal Tunbridge Wells, a large affluent town in western Kent, England. In 1962, at a tender age of 17, Tim left his family home and travelled across Europe; driving through Pakistan, India, Burma, Thailand and finally reached Vietnam in 1965. Due to his love for photography he found work as a press photographer in Laos stringing for the United Press International (UPI) and the Agence France-Presse (AFP). From there Tim had spent the next three and a half years photographing and documenting the Vietnam War. He became an iconic war photographer and was named one of the ‘100 Most Influential Photographer of All Time’. In the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’, the photojournalist Dennis Hopper’s character was based on Tim Page. Today the man who captured some of the most amazing images of the Vietnam war for all the world to see lives peacefully with his wife in a quiet suburb of Brisbane.
Tim, you left home at a very early age, did you have an actual destination and did you plan to document the Vietnam War?
When I was 16 years old I had a motorbike accident in the UK and I was dead but I came back. I can’t really remember much of it but I supposed that when you have seen the tunnel and came back, everything else is free time. As for the war, I did not look for it, it found me.
Did you travel alone or did you travel with other people?
Oh no, I travelled with all sorts of people in a Kombi van which I later sold. I had no money so I sold watches, my camera, vehicles and even currency which was worth more in the other side of some borders. I’ve also smuggled hash over the border and pimped.
When you arrived in Vietnam in 1965 and started documenting the war, did it come across in your mind that maybe you’ll never get to go home again?
Well, at first, we did not know that it was going to get that bad and by the time it hit the roof, it was too late. I was also broke, I was always broke and the money was there.
Obviously, it must have been very challenging to photograph when you have hundreds, thousands of bullets flying around you, not to mention land mines and other hazards. Did you have a tactical plan before you went out in the field?
Because I was not a soldier I had more time to look around and assess the surroundings. You learn soon enough where everybody is and even the weapons that they were carrying just by the sounds they make.
Were you also carrying a weapon to protect yourself?
No, it was not my job. However, if I was travelling with a small group of soldiers and no one could watch my back then they would tell me to carry one but I prefer not to. A weapon is as good as the ammunition that they carry and they’re bloody heavy!
You were injured several times but you kept coming back for more, can you tell us why?
I supposed that if you get hurt and you live for another day then you start to believe that you can do it all over again.
But your last injury put an end to your participation in the Vietnam war, can you remember that day?
We jumped off the chopper to save some wounded soldiers. The sergeant in front of me stepped on a land mine which sent him 30 feet up in the air and lost both of his legs and I was hit by a two-inch shrapnel just above my right eye. I was basically pronounced dead but again I survived and spent the next year in the US undergoing extensive neuro-surgery.
Going back to the war, it must have been hard to relax and sleep after seeing the horror each day, how did you all cope after a long day?
I slept ok. After a day in the field we would go to the bar; drink some beers, smoke some joints and maybe visit an opium farm then sleep like a baby.
Were there occasions where you photographed outside the warzone area?
Yes, boring photos. Sometimes we were asked to photograph some ladies giving birth in the local hospitals or just random boring photos.
If you could go back time, would you do it again?
No, if I knew it was going to get that bad I would not be in there.
Lastly, what is your opinion of the Vietnam War?
I believe it’s all political and I believe America did not win it but it is what is. Many people have died; soldiers, civilians and even photojournalists.
Before I left Tim, there was kind of sadness inside me. There I was sitting in a small room with a man who shares the same passion as me. Someone who I only just knew but still do not know. I have researched him, spent four hours talking to him in person but all I know is his work but I am now curious of him, what is in Tim Page’s mind?
I have a huge respect for all war photojournalists such as Tim. For some they may be crazy but to me they are soldiers without the guns, instead they carry weapons that freeze the moments so the world can see the horror in wars.
Tim Page, Nam
Tim Page, The Mindful Moment