Meeting Tim Page

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, 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 his 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.

Today Page, who was actually born in Tunbridge Wells of all places, is living in London and working again. 

Last week he visited the Metropole Arts Centre at Folkestone to show his famous Nam pictures alongside a telling collection of photographs taken in a post-war America that is 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 is still but somehow, these days, it is off-set by an inner-peace and an unwavering sense of purpose. I suspect that Page the adrenalin junkie who got off on the thrill and dangers of war grew into a man with a mission - to tell the unpalatable truth about political regimes.

Francis Ford Coppola based Dennis Hopper’s renegade photographer gone-native in Apocalypse Now  on Tim Page. There were certainly some striking parallels between the on-screen character and the real-life war photographer although of course Page is very English.

I met him on the edge of  a jungle in Sri Lanka once. He was holed up in a tiny wooden shack with a large woman, tripping on acid, smoking dope  and listening to Buddhist chants on a clapped out old tape-recorder.

We had a long, rambling conversation about elephants, ballpoint pens, the special quality of light at 5.00am and why he needed to travel. He was in bad physical shape. I really didn’t think he’d live for too much longer. 

© Jeremy Miles 2022