Tim Page's long, strange trip through this battered land

Tim Page's long, strange trip through this battered land

After years of working in the region, Tim Page is in Cambodia to exhibit some of his most mind-blowing photography


Tim Page speaking to the Post on Monday.

TTHROUGH his viewfinder, British photographer Tim Page often looked death straight in the eye.

But by taking such enormous risks, he managed to capture on film both the most tragic and the most exhilarating moments in the recent history of Cambodia and Vietnam.

Now Page is back in Cambodia, with an exhibition of some of his most powerful photographs of the last 40 years and a desire to lay to rest the ghosts of two old friends.

In 1962, when he was only 18 years old, Page set out from England looking for adventure on the hippie trails of Southeast Asia.

Page got his first big scoop when he witnessed a coup in Vientiane and - as the borders and the airport were closed - escaped by boat across the Mekong River into Thailand.

His photos gave UPI an exclusive story for four days and prompted the Saigon bureau chief to offer him a job.

His task: covering the unfolding war in Vietnam.

Wounded many times while shooting photos at the front lines, Page became one of the most respected photographers of the era.

The scars of war

Page is quick to admit that the war has taken a heavy toll on his life.

"War makes you evil in some ways, it dehumanises you. And this reflects in your personal life," he said.

Throughout the 1970s, Page went through what he refers to as "bad moments of violence" at home, and tried to fight his desperation with "serious amounts" of LSD.

But as time went by, Page  found other ways of coping with his wartime trauma.

He has published or co-published eight books, most of them dealing - in pictures and words - with the war and its aftermath in Southeast Asia.

[Cambodia] needs a ... strongman to run the place [even if he] holds ... power with corruption and guns.

Cambodian mine victim at Vietnam Veterans Prostate Center. TIM PAGE

Rebels, Buddhist revolution in Go Dau Ha, 1966.

Saigon during the mini-Tet offensive, 1968.


Saigon during the mini-Tet offensive, 1968.


"Writing about it, and especially doing Requiem, has flushed a lot of the shit down the toilet," he said.

"I still don't feel entirely free. There are still mad clouds in my head sometimes, but not so much anymore, thank God."

Requiem, the book Page said he holds dearest, is a collection of pictures taken by 135 photographers who lost their lives covering the various wars in Indochina from 1945 to 1975.

One of these cases will still not let him go, and it is the main reason why Page has once again returned to Cambodia.

Page says he is here to try to solve the mystery surrounding the death of his best friend, photographer Sean Flynn and his partner Dana Stone, who were presumed killed by the Khmer Rouge in eastern Cambodia in 1971.

Page's 1990 attempt to find out what happened to Flynn and Stone, portrayed in the documentary Danger on the Edge of Town, left many questions unanswered, he said.

On the one hand, this journey is a "spiritual quest ... to lay their ghosts to rest" by finding hospital staff who treated the two and others who may know about their last days.

On the other hand, Page is also thinking about turning the story into a commercial film.

He has received nine scripts so far, and there is an offer on the table from HBO and Steven Spielberg to produce something along the lines of Spielberg's World War II TV miniseries Band of Brothers.

"The ante is up. People are playing poker with this, which is good," Page said.

Wishing to uphold the memory of all journalists killed in the wars that raged through Indochina between 1945 and 1975, Page set up the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation (IMMF) in 1991.

The foundation offers photojournalism workshops for young people in the region, held in Vietnam and Bangkok.

While Page said he would like to train more Cambodian  photojournalists, he stressed that they need an education first if they want to succeed.

A special place

Cambodia holds a special place in Page's heart, he said.

Coming back "is like putting on a comfortable old pair of boots".

According to Page, while Cambodia is a great place to take pictures, it also enables him to do "good work", such as helping to demine the Cambodian countryside with the Mines Advisory Group (MAG).

Cambodia has left indelible imprints in Page's memory.

He remembered one night that he spent alone at the Bayon temple, when he first came to the country in 1964.

"Quite an incredible experience," he said. "Spooky, spiritual, disturbing, illuminating - a bit like an acid trip."

Another moment he will never forget came when he was on his expedition to find Flynn and Stone.

When he showed Flynn's photograph to a village woman, he could see that she had a personal relationship with the man.

"I knew that she knew that I knew that she knew him. That was a big moment."

Cambodia has changed a lot in the past years, Page said.

"Security has gotten better. Malnutrition is less of an issue," he said.

"Cambodians are much more content than they were two years ago."

But Page added that he is concerned that "they haven't managed to introduce a solid system of birth control, as overpopulation [in Cambodia] is ... an issue."

Regarding Cambodia's political situation, Page said the trend towards a one-party rule may be the only option right now.

"Is it practical that Cambodia has a true democratic system? I'm not sure," he said. "[Cambodia] needs ... a strongman to run the place [even if he] holds on to power with corruption and guns."

Page said he was following the Khmer Rouge trial, but stopped because he thought it was "window-dressing", more designed to satisfy Western donors than to help Cambodians.

Being Buddhists, he said people in Cambodia should "be able to resolve their own past and get over the trauma".

The real benefit of the trial, he said, is to give young Cambodians an understanding of their country's history, and with it a sense of belonging.

"As soon as people know about it, they know the good and they know the bad," he said.

"They can see what corruption is, what tyranny is, what dictatorship is, what communism is. If you are not informed, you cannot even make a guess. ... That is why [the tribunal] is important."

An iconic shot

Possibly the most iconic picture taken by Page in Cambodia is that of a UN helicopter ferrying Prince Norodom Ranariddh over a crowd of Cambodians crouched in its dusty rotor wash.

UN helicopter carrying Prince Norodom Ranariddh during his 1993 election campaign. TIM PAGE

Land mine victim, Cambodia. TIM PAGE

The helicopter was the only way the prince could, during his 1993 election campaign,  evade the travel restrictions placed on him by Hun Sen, who would later serve as co-prime minister with the prince before ousting him from power in 1997, Page said.

According to Page, "this picture is so powerful because it represents the entire Untac era to the Cambodians who look at it".

"[Untac] had a lot of problems, a lot of criticisms, but it worked," he said.

"Maybe the picture symbolises the whole thing".

At the time the picture was taken, the country was just going through a process of stabilisation.

Roads were beginning to open up, and peoples' optimism was growing, despite the still ongoing civil war, Page said.

Page remembered how women were beginning to discover freedom they had not known before, being able to access markets and to vote.

"If you emancipate women, you can free a country," he said.

"In a sense, the picture represented that liberty, that freedom."

To be young again

Asked if he would plunge himself into the globe's hottest war zones if he was young again, Page at first refused to answer.

"There are no ifs and buts; you go round once," he said, quoting a passage from one of his books. "‘If' is a silly word."

Nonetheless, Page, who said he adheres to Buddhist philosophy, eventually answered. "If I was young and had the opportunity to go to a conflict again? Yeah, probably," he said.

"I think the difference between the 1960s and [now] is that the style of war has changed," he said.

"Journalists are no longer sacred. We are being infiltrated, we've been fucked over, we've been misrepresented," Page added.

"If I had to relive what has happened, [I would] maybe take a little bit of the pain out," he said.

Page's photography exhibition will open at the Meta House this Sunday at 6:30pm, running until Wednesday January 7.

The showcased pieces cover the war and postwar years in both Vietnam and Cambodia.

Visitors can also pick the artist's brain and enjoy his documentary Danger on the Edge of Town at 6:30pm Sunday.

Prints of the photos on display are available for purchase, costing from US$400 for A2 size to US$800 for limited edition, black-and-white prints.

The proceeds, Page said he hopes, will free him up so he can finish work on his new book.

US soldiers tending to their wounded in Vietnam.   US soldiers in combat in Vietnam.

Photo by:Tim Page


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