Born in 1944
Tim Page was a talented combat photographer who courted death on numerous occasions while covering the Vietnam War. He documented the war from 1965 to 1969, when a serious shrapnel wound nearly took his life. Page then disappeared from public view until the late 1970s, when Michael Herr (see entry) wrote about his Vietnam exploits in the best-selling book Dispatches. Herr's book sparked renewed interest in Page's life and enabled the photographer to revive his career. Today, Page ranks as the most famous of the photojournalists who covered the war in Vietnam.
Early life of adventure and danger
Tim Page was born in England in 1944. The son of a British sailor who was killed in World War II, Page was put up for adoption as an infant. He recalled his childhood in the London suburbs as a happy one, but at age seventeen he ran away from home in search of adventure.
Page spent the next few years traveling around Asia. He supported himself by a variety of means during this time, including jobs as a cook and a light-bulb salesman. But he spent most of his time seeking out new adventures, experiences, and parties (he became a frequent user of marijuana and other illegal drugs during this time). Before long, Page was very familiar with both the criminal underworlds and the traditional cultures of nations all across Southeast Asia.
Page's travels eventually took him to Laos, where a civil war was raging between Communist guerrillas and the U.S.-supported government. Shortly after entering the wartorn country in 1964, he became a freelance photographer for United Press International (UPI). It was in Laos that Page first developed his reputation as a fearless photojournalist, for he often roamed deep into the countryside in order to cover the violent clashes between the Laotian military and the guerrillas.
Travels to Vietnam
In February 1965 Page left Laos for Vietnam, where U.S. involvement in another civil war was deepening. The Vietnam War was a conflict that pitted the U.S.-supported nation of South Vietnam against the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its Communist guerrilla fighters (known as Viet Cong) in the South. At first, the United States sent money, weapons, and military advisors to South Vietnam to help it fend off the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies. But this assistance failed to put down the Communist threat, and in March 1965—one month after Page's arrival in the country—President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) sent American combat troops to fight on the side of South Vietnam. Over the next few years, the United States sent hundreds of thousands of troops to fight in the war. But deepening U.S. involvement failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the war settled into a bloody stalemate, and the American public became bitterly divided over the conflict.
Page quickly became known as one of the most fearless of the photojournalists who were covering the war. Indeed, Page spent a good part of the late 1960s grabbing rides on helicopters or motorcycles to go deep into combat areas, where he captured a wide range of images on film. As Sanford Wexler noted in The Vietnam War: An Eyewitness History, "Page was known as a photographer who would go anywhere, fly in anything, snap the [camera] shutter under any conditions, and when hit [wounded] . . . go at it again in bandages." Many fellow journalists and U.S. soldiers thought that Page's behavior was crazy or at least foolhardy, but everyone recognized that his risky actions often produced stunning pictures that most other photographers could never obtain.
Some of Page's photos showed fierce firefights or army helicopters swooping over rice fields, while others preserved the emotions of captured Viet Cong suspects or Vietnamese children weeping over the bodies of family members. Page also took many photographs of the American soldiers who served during the late 1960s, a period when drug use, rock and roll music, antiwar protests, and general war-weariness were all influencing troop attitudes and military performance. "Perhaps Page's most striking pictures are of the GIs," wrote William Shawcross in his introduction to Tim Page's Nam. "Poor whites and blacks plucked from the ignorant and often innocent island of America's heart and cast without understanding or preparation into an utterly alien and terrifying world. In his pictures and . . . in his commentary Page records the 'sixties-psychedelic side of the GI culture, the inanity [absurdity] of their predicament and the refuge they took in dope and rock [music]."
For his part, Page recognized that the war took a terrible toll on both the Vietnamese people and U.S. troops. He became a strong opponent of American military involvement in the region. But he also confessed that he found his years of photojournalism in Vietnam to be intensely exciting and strangely glamorous. "Page fed on every wretched, insane, heroic, perilous, convulsive, inhuman, controversial, grotesque, paradoxical, beautiful hour of his Vietnam years," commented Paul Dean in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "When not flying on drugs he was high on the buccaneering thrill of it all."
Repeatedly wounded in the field
Page was wounded on four different occasions during his four years in Vietnam. In 1965 he was hit by shrapnel in the legs and stomach during an attack on the coastal city of Chu Lai. A year later, Buddhist groups led antigovernment riots in the South Vietnamese city of Danang. The South Vietnam government responded with a violent crackdown, during which Page suffered shrapnel wounds in the head, back, and arms.
Page recovered from his wounds and resumed working. One day, he hopped a ride with a Coast Guard boat out into the South China Sea. He had gone out with the boat to relax for the day, but American jet fighters in the area mistakenly identified the boat as a Viet Cong vessel. The U.S. planes immediately launched a fierce attack on the defenseless boat. "I had never seen anything like it in my life," recalled Page. "Here's two Phantoms and a B-57 strafing us with twin Vulcans [machine guns] blazing, giving us a stem-to-stern strafing. They hit some gas drums, which started cooking off, and I watched a guy get his hand blown off. The skipper went up to the bridge to try and signal to the jets that we were friendlies and they blew him away. They made nine passes, and blasted the living hell out of the ship. Everybody on board was killed or wounded, I had pieces of commo wire coming out of my head like porcupine quills, a bone sticking out of my arm and countless shrapnel punctures." In fact, Page suffered more than 200 individual wounds, and he floated in the South China Sea for several hours before he was finally rescued.
This attack convinced Page to leave Vietnam for awhile. Many of his friends had been warning him that he seemed destined to die in the war, and he began to think that they might be right. But the 1968 Tet Offensive—a major North Vietnamese invasion of the South that was barely turned back by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces—lured Page back to the region. He soon resumed his daring ways, roaming deep into the jungle in search of memorable photographs and stories.
On the verge of death
One day in 1969, Page secured a ride on an army helicopter that was heading out into the countryside. During the trip, the helicopter was diverted to pick up two wounded American soldiers. When the helicopter landed, Page and a sergeant leaped out to retrieve the soldiers. The sergeant promptly stepped on a land mine that blew off both of his legs. The explosion also drove a big piece of shrapnel into the base of Page's brain. The photographer collapsed onto the floor of the helicopter. As he lay there he heard someone estimate that he had only twenty minutes to live. But Page remained alive through the helicopter ride back to the U.S. base, and doctors revived him two or three different times after his heart stopped. He was later transferred to a hospital in Tokyo, where doctors told him he would suffer permanent paralysis of his left side.
After being transferred to medical facilities in the United States, Page started a comprehensive rehabilitation program. The program eventually helped him regain the use of his left side, but the photographer remained hospitalized for nearly eighteen months before he was released.
Page struggled both emotionally and financially during the mid-1970s. Suffering from depression and lingering memories of the war, he sank into alcohol and drug abuse. This behavior made it difficult for him to hold down a steady job. Finally, a brief marriage ended in divorce during this period.
In the late 1970s Page filed a lawsuit against Time-Life Corporation, for whom he worked during most of his time in Vietnam. The photographer claimed that the company never adequately compensated him for the injuries that he suffered while covering the war. He eventually received an out-of-court settlement of $125,000.
Revival of interest in Page's career
In the late 1970s the public spotlight abruptly turned to Page again. In 1977 Vietnam journalist Michael Herr (see entry) published Dispatches, a critically acclaimed war memoir that included extensive comments about Page. Herr's remarks about Page's remarkable years in Vietnam sparked a major surge of interest in the photojournalist's work. This interest intensified two years later, when the Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now was released. At that time, it was revealed that one of the movie's main characters—an eccentric photographer played by actor Dennis Hopper—was partly based on Page. In 1980 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) made a documentary film about Page's life. During this same period, an exhibition of the photojournalist's Vietnam pictures was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. And in 1983 a collection of some of his finest work was published in Tim Page's Nam.
In 1980 Page accepted a magazine assignment and returned to Vietnam for the first time since the war's end in 1975. In 1985 he visited the country again on his own. He collected the photographs from that visit into a book called Ten Years After: Vietnam Today (1987). Since then, he has returned to Vietnam on a number of occasions for book projects such as 1995's Derailed in Uncle Ho's Victory Garden.
In 1988 Page published an autobiographical account of his experiences during the war. Kirkus Reviews described Page after Page: Memoirs of a War-Torn Photographer as a "woozy memoir . . . of [an] eccentric and adventurous life on the edges of society and in the midst of jungle warfare." Publishers Weekly, meanwhile, called Page's memoir "a story that is alternately hilarious and heartrending."
Produces Requiem tribute
In the mid-1990s Page started work on a new project that he intended as a tribute to two close friends who had been lost in Vietnam. The two men, photojournalists Dana Stone and Sean Flynn (son of movie legend Errol Flynn), had both disappeared in the jungles of Cambodia during the spring of 1969, and they had never been heard from again. Page intended to collect the war photos of Flynn and Stone and publish them together in a special book. As he worked on the project, though, he eventually decided to expand it to include the camera work of other photojournalists who had died or disappeared during the war. The final result, which Page produced in collaboration with fellow Vietnam photojournalist Horst Faas, was the 1997 book Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina. This powerful collection of images won several important awards and earned widespread critical praise.
In 1999 Page and Faas presented an exhibition of selected works from the Requiem book in the United States. The exhibition included pictures from 135 photojournalists—including seventy-two North Vietnamese—who died or were lost in the wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the 1960s and 1970s. The Requiem exhibition also appeared in Japan and Great Britain. In 2000 the exhibition was moved to Vietnam. It was shown in Hanoi in early 2000 and was scheduled to be permanently housed in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) later that year, when the nation celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the end of the war.
Andrews, Owen, et al. Vietnam: Images from Combat Photographers. Washington: Starwood, 1991.
Herr, Michael. Dispatches. New York: Knopf, 1977.
Page, Tim. Derailed in Uncle Ho's Victory Garden: Return to Vietnam and Cambodia. New York: Touchstone, 1995.
Page, Tim. Page after Page: Memoirs of a War-Torn Photographer. New York: Atheneum, 1989.
Page, Tim. Ten Years After: Vietnam Today. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Page, Tim. Tim Page's Nam. New York: Knopf, 1983.
Excerpt from Tim Page's Nam
Writing in Tim Page's Nam, photojournalist Tim Page offered his own perspective on the basic character of the war in Vietnam:
When you got down to it, it was less of a battle of the technical toys, more about the stamina of the people out there on the ground; between the folks who lived there and the white devils who had come to try and push them out of their own backyards at flashpoint. Not to say that millions of them did not get napalmed, strafed, shot and blitzed trying to stay in their yards.
Most of the time we spent slogging about in vicious circles looking for him, trying to discern [figure out] who was who. The average GI had no more idea who was a VC [Viet Cong] than who was a "friendly farmer"; a lot of friendly farmers got blown away. The maxim [rule] was shoot first, ask questions later. Few Vietnamese tried living in their so-called "Free Fire Zones," where anything was target practice.
Vietnam would normally have ranked as one of the most beautiful spots on this planet. Instead, it was a daunting place to operate a coordinated antiguerrilla campaign. Vietnam was very hot and very wet during the monsoon, but during the dry season there wasn't a drop to drink even in the jungle. The hill country was ravenous: it could eat a whole brigade and its supporting aviation and artillery units alive for breakfast; the swamps and paddies could eat the reserves for lunch. Gear dropped apart in a million mysterious mildewed ways, the body seemed to grow things that existed only in horror movies. The day-to-day stuff, a shower, a hot meal, a clean rack, were a matter of supreme skill coupled with the problem of just staying alive.