Meeting Vietnam war legend Tim Page

A 1966 combat operation in Vietnam

By Jeremy Miles

Among war photographers Tim Page is a legend. He is part of that lunatic elite who cruised into Vietnam and surfed through the whole crazy, horrifying nightmare on a high-roller of drugs, adrenalin and rock n roll. Other members of the Press Corp thought him completely mad. He pushed his luck to the absolute limit, was wounded again and again, but kept returning with pictures that no one else could possibly have got.

He took insane risks but at the same time achieved a documentation of the war that will stand forever as a historic testament to its terror, sadness, brutality and awful glory. Working as a freelance for UPI, his photographs were received with relish by huge news corporations like Time Life who published hundreds of them. In return for the incredible pictures they received, they pandered to this Mad Brits’s apparent need for a near-suicidal work schedule and lifestyle.

The first time he was flown back to their office in Danang still clutching his precious film. He received a hero’s welcome. Page’s physical involvement with the war effectively ended at precisely 2.02pm on April 19, 1969. That was the time showing on his shattered wristwatch when he was pulled out of the carnage that resulted when the platoon he was patrolling with walked slap into a booby-trap mine.

A soldier just a few steps in front him was blown to pieces after stepping on a 105mm shell hidden under leaves on the jungle trail. Page was felled by the shrapnel and with a hole in the base of his brain the size of a grapefruit, medics were convinced that he was fatally wounded and announced that he probably had no more than 20 minutes to live. Astonishingly he not only survived but refused to believe  the prognosis when doctors told him that he would be permanently paralysed down the left side. Over the next decade he literally forced himself to learn to walk again.

When I ran into Page in the mid 1980s he was living in London and working again. I wrote a piece when he visited the Metropole Arts Centre in Folkestone to show his famous Nam pictures.There was also a telling collection of photographs taken in a post-war America that was rapidly gaining an unenviable reputation for the heartless treatment of its physically and mentally damaged veterans.

Talking of his experiences and taking questions from the small audience, it was clear that Page remains an extraordinarily driven individual. The craziness was still there but somehow offset by an inner-peace and an unwavering sense of purpose. Page the adrenalin junkie who got off on the thrill and dangers of war and grown into a man with a mission – to tell the unpalatable truth about political regimes.

I met him once before, on the edge of  a jungle in Sri Lanka. He was holed up in a tiny wooden shack on the coast with a large woman, tripping on acid, smoking dope and listening to Buddhist chants on a clapped out old tape-recorder. It was a strange evening. We had both been covering the Esala Perahera – the torchlit parade of dozens of decorated elephants and exotic dancers. This psychedelic carnival that meanders through the ancient city of Kandy honouring a mysterious relic that is said to be the tooth of the Buddha himself, is a heady mix of sights and sounds. Perfumed with incense and the smell of burning copra the Perahera is like nothing else on earth. I was writing a never tio be pub listed book and Page was being Page

After a stampede of frightened elephants some years earlier camera’s with flashguns had been banned at the Perahera but sitting in his jungle shack, Page showed me a letter he had acquired, apparently from the President himself, giving him special dispensation to use a flashgun. I wasn’t sure that I believed him but in the context of our long and long, rambling conversation it seemed to make sense. We covered much ground discussing the psychology of elephants, the mystical ability of the BiC biro to dematerialise at will, the special quality of light at 5.00am and why Page still needed to travel.

Frankly he seemed both as whacked out as the journalist and counter-culture fanboy within me could have hoped for. He was also in pretty bad physical shape and if I’m honest I really didn’t think he’d live for much longer. I was very wrong on that count. To this day Tim Page is very much a going concern living in Australia and still, giving lectures and holding exhibitions across the world.

Of course our encounter happened 40 years ago. I was 30 and though I was a veteran of CND marches and thought of myself as a peacenik, I was very much in thrall to the glamour of war. After all I had grown up surrounded by so many books and movies about battles and adventures under fire. From Bridge on the River Kwai to the Dambusters, Reach for the Sky to The Great Escape. It was really exciting.

When I was a teenager in the late 1960s my parents moved to Hong Kong. I spent a couple of amazing summer holidays at their old colonial apartment high on The Peak overlooking the city and harbour, a strategic stop off point for troops being shipped in an out the Vietnam war.

Those steamy hot evenings spent hanging out on their balcony listening to Hendrix or The Doors while surveying the teeming city below; the days spent hitting the strangely exotic streets full of bar girls, swaggering young American servicemen and the inevitable chancers, dealers and pimps who followed them around. It’s a memory that is seared into my brain.

Tim Page was part of that Crazy Asian madness that I was witnessing from the sidelines when as a 17-year-old in 1968 I was trying to make sense of what was happening to these American boys – soldiers and sailors, many of them barely older than me. The fear, the bravado, the sense that they had seen so much in such a short space of time was tangible..

Fast forward 13 years and I’m working as a journalist, travelling around Sri Lanka and have added Apocalypse Now to my list of favourite films. Running into Page, who was at least partly the inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s renegade photographer gone-rogue, is pretty exciting.

Even more thrilling is the fact that he seemed perfectly happy to chat. I’m a fairly confident individual but I have no doubt that had I approached him in a similar manner – “You’re Tim Page, aren’t you?” in an urban setting in the UK our conversation would have been embarrassingly brief. Somehow just being in an Asian jungle had bestowed me with a degree of credibility.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre publicist and occasional art historian.

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