Smoking Salem lights and drinking Heineken from a can, photographer Tim Page rolls
into the office of the Phnom Penh Post and sparks up a conversation. Born in Tunbridge
Wells, England, in 1944, Page began work as a press photographer in Laos at age 18.
He was in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and wounded in action three times. In
1969, while loading wounded soldiers into a helicopter, Page took a massive shrapnel
wound to the head.
He spent the next year in the US, undergoing neuro-surgery and joining the anti-war
movement. In the 1970s he worked as a photographer for Rolling Stone and began the
decades-long quest to discover the fate of his best friend Sean Flynn. His search
led him to found the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation in 1991, and inspired his
book Requiem-a remembrance of all the journalists killed during wars against the
Japanese, French and Americans. He's been the subject of many documentaries, two
films and authored nine books.
Page spoke to Charles McDermid on May 25.
What defines a great war photograph?
Ultimately, any good war photography becomes anti-war. First thing: you don't need
to know about the photographer or his emotions.
I want to know about the emotions of the people being documented.
What then is the component, artistically, of such an image? Why does it make the
eye remember? Because it is unsettling, but pleasing-stroked with horror and
tempered with normality.
It's an ordinary situation with some horror in it. War is mostly boring spans of
time with a sudden flurry of orgasmic action, and then it is over.
The next bit is sitting at the bar of doom, talking in half stanzas about the experience
you just had, and the only people who know what you're talking about have been there,
How does it feel to be written about, and in a sense 'mythologized?'
I treat it with fear and loathing and love. It's been said we have to be invisible
to be a good photographer. But when you're serving a purpose or a cause then you
can use what collateral you've got to make the most for life's victims. You can't
do anything about the impossibility of stopping war - it's the biggest business on
the planet - but you can become an uncomfortable thorn in somebody's bum.
Where'd you go first when you left England?
Amsterdam. I had a motorcycle wreck when I was 16. It split my head open and I was
DOA at the hospital. I took the insurance money and bought a Volkswagen, "Keep
on Truckin'," Mr. Natural van. In Amsterdam I worked for one day at a chewing
gum factory, one as a chambermaid and four days working at the Heineken Brewery.
Then I started to smuggle hash from Paris.
How'd you smuggle it?
We used the spare tire of a car; it took about 20 kilos of hash. But the ring got
popped and we left quickly. I was in a Swiss hotel with a drummer and we said 'lets
go to Australia for Christmas.' It was October, 1962, and we drove as far as Lahore,
in West Pakistan.
But, all the people I'd picked up took off and left me. I had nothing -nothing -
so I started moving hash. I got paid $100 to bring 100 kilos in a footlocker and
a few weapons-pistols-from a tribal area in the northwest. Finally, I got to India
and became a Sikh. I got stuck in Bombay for two months in the hospital. I weighed
105 pounds and had six diseases, including elephantiasis of the scrotum-imagine a
testicle the size of an orange. I had malaria, blood poisoning, amoebic dysentery,
the clap and hemorrhoids. The only [toilet paper] was a Road and Track Magazine.
I didn't have a penny to my name, but I had a massive ball of hash. I was rescued
by a French boxer.
What is it about some people that pushes them to seek adventure, danger?
I think it's genetic. Genetically, some people are born with an inquisitive gene
- a gene or an "ism" or a molecule - that seeks the edge. You either crave
the edge, have a passion for the edge, or you got sown the dull molecule and life
is like taking Valium every day. People who seek the edge believe in luck and eroticism.
They don't want a planned life-they want the surprise factor, the curved ball. I
don't know. I still try to ask myself the same question. If I don't get a fix of
Indochina, something in me is destabilized. I can't imagine a regular job.
What do you think of the new generation of journalists?
I suppose what frightens me- what makes me querulous-is that the new generation has
grown up in a virtual world. Today's young person goes to an internet café
- few of them read. Few of them carry a book. (Michael Herr wrote that you should
always carry a book). My gurus, my mentors -people I learned from on the road as
well as in Vietnam -were people. If you have a virtual world you don't have anything.
What do they have now? A lappie? Is it tangible? A touchstone?
Why does the younger generation, say people born after 1970, romanticize the Vietnam
It was the first of its kind - first and last. The first openly covered conflict,
the first in color, first war on TV, first war of the freelancer, first war with
a photo agency. It was the first war America lost. Now, two generations of media
later and every media student can name six Vietnam still images-the most important
of which were shot by Brits; Burroughs, Griffith Jones, McCullen, Page.
Also in Vietnam a very important element is the music. Jimi, Janis: even our children
will be playing music from that epoch. It was the first time music was contemporary
and expressed dissent. Marvin Gaye was asking "What's Going On," and everyone
was saying it. The radio at the time was playing the latest music and the DJs were
all stoned. Where else does a war exist like this? On TV they were broadcasting "Combat"
and "Rawhide," and giving weather reports for the ski slopes of Oregon.
The whole thing was gonzo.
What was it like going on assignment with Hunter S. Thompson?
I worked with Hunter twice. He bottled out before the end of Saigon. I was working
with him for Rolling Stone and I was supposed to be with him right at the end. But
he left two or three days before and told the publisher I was crazy. The hard core
stayed on, but the drugs didn't carry him through.
Apocalypse Now: was Dennis Hopper playing you?
When Hopper comes on he's playing me -it's a character that's based on me and [Sean]
Flynn and others from the "Colleagues" chapter in Dispatches. He's also
playing himself. He's a rebel in his own right and a genius; I've met him a couple
of times. In the film he's got malaria, and he's taking this and taking that...well,
I shouldn't chastise him for consumption. Hopper turned up in the Philippines on
vacation and Coppola had just got the first proof of the film and he needed a bridge.
He used the media as the bridge to bring the two parts of the story together. The
myth [that the Hopper character is Page] took off after a producer's screening by
Fishermen's Wharf [San Francisco] in 1979. I was sitting with Coppola, [George] Lucas,
Steven Spielberg and Michael Herr. When Hopper came on it was pure acid, pure unrehearsed
gonzo. Herr elbows me and says, "Hey, you finally made it to the silver screen."
That's how it started. Herr later went to England and worked for [Stanley] Kubrick.
He says his biggest crime was writing "Full Metal Jacket." Now he runs
a Buddhist retreat in upstate New York.
In your opinion what's the best historical document on the Vietnam War?
Requiem. Requiem is the ultimate book. At some point we have to be proud of what
we do. Requiem makes me feel good. I did the right thing for my mates, and at the
end of the day that's what Vietnam was all about.
I read recently: "Page was peppered with shrapnel four times before being
shot up - by the Americans - on a patrol boat in the South China Sea ." How
does it feel to be "peppered?"
The pain doesn't hit you at first. There's a big difference between photographing
what we shouldn't see and then looking at your own body and realizing you're shredded
and there are gaping bits of whatever. I had a porcupine quill of steel cable stuck
like a cat's whisker through my face, and I was trying to pull it out while still
taking pictures. It probably saved my right eye. I was two feet away from two 20
mm canon shells that went off in the bulkhead. The cabin cable burst and I had chunks
of cable in my side and arm and feet. I had 400 pieces of shrapnel, paint, insulation,
cable. In my thigh there was base cap of a 20 mm shell-it came out in a swimming
pool in Singapore.
You were in jail with Jim Morrison?
We were arrested the same night in New Haven. I got disturbing the peace and resisting
arrest. I'm still wanted in Connecticut. People don't know Morrison was maced just
before the concert by the cops in his dressing room. He came out and did "The
End" and just built it up and up. The place lit up. It was good Sixties revolution
shit. The police were whacking people by the stage door. I went to a cop and said,
'I've been assaulted by an officer,' and he threw me in the back of a police van.
They threw my girlfriend in, too, and a guy from the Village Voice. Then another
guy gets thrown in and he's got a knife. His brother was just killed in Vietnam and
he was out of his head on speed. I'm trying to calm him and the Village Voice guy
was trying to get rid of a gram of smack and my girlfriend was eating three joints.
At the jail they threw me in the holding tank and Morrison was there in the corner.
What was it like to work with The Clash?
They had a road manager called Cosmo Vinyl. Joe Strummer had all my books and he
sent Cosmo to where I was living and asked if I would come to a rehearsal and tour
with them. So I took the Vauxhall Bridge in Victoria to this scuzzy pub and went
up to this disgusting practice studio. Strummer says, "we have a present for
you," and gave me a carrier bag with their complete collection-every single,
EP and album-I should've kept it-and a huge ball of hash. It must've been a half
an ounce. We smoked a few numbers and made a few images, then we went and got pissed.
I went on tour with them to Paris and northern France. They used my pictures as backdrop
for every song. I lived with them for about three months. They were a seriously weird-as-shit
group, but when they came on they were great. Strummer would come out in camouflage
saying 'fuck you' - you had to respect that.
Your search for Sean Flynn and Dana Stone lasted for decades. Is it over now?
The final piece of the Flynn jigsaw puzzle is about to be resolved. One of the big
links in the whole things is here right now-a big name. I can't talk about it to
you. The other link is in Vietnam, and I've been promised that in August, when I
go back, the link will be revealed. The Vietnam link will be revealed.
A Vietnamese official will show me a document from 1971 that names the Khmer Rouge
as the official front and government of the country. There are certain edicts one
of which gave custody of any foreigner taken prisoner by the Vietnamese in Cambodia
were handed over to the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge had no rules, the Vietnamese were much smarter than that: they kept
journos alive. We were protected. Mate, in Vietnam they knew who we were, where we
were and where we were going.
Will this new information be a surprise, or a confirmation?