Tim Page should have died by land mine, punji stick, gunshot or shark attack. He should have been felled by venereal disease, a drug overdose, dysentery or malaria. He came so close to death so many times as a combat photographer that it is a minor miracle he survived his 20s, when he covered the Vietnam War in all its horror and “glamour” – his term – in the 1960s.
Instead, he died by a rather mundane, though cruel, combination of liver and lung cancer on Wednesday at his home in Bellingen, near Coffs Harbour in New South Wales. He was 78.
Tim’s deterioration was rapid, only a bit more than a month. Shortly after his partner, Marianne Harris (known as Mau), told me that he had cancer, I had planned to visit him to write about his astonishing – at times incredible – life. By then, we all knew he was headed to the great helicopter landing zone in the sky but thought he would endure for many months, for his survival skills were always seemingly superhuman.
We were wrong. One of the last photos shot of him, published on a friend’s Facebook page on Aug. 23, the day before he passed away, showed this once powerful, ebullient man stretched out on a cot in his home. He was wearing a green T-shirt and looked wasted, though serene. He was smoking a joint, of course; joints went with his persona, as did his rather stylish Arab-style scarfs.
He was one of the best-known Vietnam War photographers, certainly the best known to have survived a war that slaughtered photographers on both sides of the long campaign in alarming numbers – partly because their ability to get close to the action meant that they could get slaughtered.
Vietnam was considered the last American war where reporters and photojournalists faced almost no restrictions on where and when they could go; they had total freedom. The concept of “embedded” journalists – where they are attached to military units that allow them almost no freedom to stray – did not exist in the 1960s.
In Vietnam, journalists could ride into battle on motorcycles – as Tim and his colleagues did – cover a firefight and then ride out or fly out on a Huey gunship or medevac chopper. They dressed and sometimes acted like soldiers when U.S. troops needed extra firepower to save their skins in battles against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) or Viet Cong guerrillas.
My late father, Robert Reguly, who covered the war for The Toronto Star in 1967, told me that the freedom journalists had was intoxicating, as if South Vietnam, as the American-backed country was then called, was their gigantic playground (my father, too, was handed an M16 automatic rifle to fight his way out of a couple of battles).
If Tim and his colleagues had covered the Iraq War, no one would have heard of them since they would have been incapable of making a name for themselves. Many journalists in Iraq didn’t even see dead bodies because everywhere they went was controlled – in effect censored for maximum propaganda value – by the American or British military.
In contrast, the images captured in Vietnam reflected the photographers’ freedom to record the true savagery of the war, which many protesters in the United States considered the mechanized slaughter of mostly innocent peasant farmers.
Tim once told me that, “any good picture we did was an anti-war picture,” and those images, in print and on TV, certainly brought the war to American living rooms.
By 1967, anti-war protests filled cities from New York to Los Angeles. In 1968, President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) in effect admitted that the war had already been lost on the home front and shocked the world when he declared that he would not seek re-election. “There is division in the American house now,” he said on March 31 of that year.
Tim and the hundreds of print and TV journalists who covered the war can take some credit for LBJ’s decision to leave the White House. In the obituary he wrote about Tim in the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian journalist Ben Bohane said that the photographer and his Vietnam War colleagues helped inspire Daniel Ellsberg to release the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which revealed that LBJ had “consistently lied” to Congress and the American public about the true extent of the U.S. war in Vietnam and other parts of the former Indochina.
Mr. Bohane wrote that Mr. Ellsberg gave a copy of the Pentagon Papers to Tim, inscribed with the words: “To Tim who may have changed the course of the war.”
Australian conflict photographer Stephen Dupont, who has spent years editing Tim’s photo archives and was with him when he died, told me this week that the uncensored brutality of Tim’s war photos was sometimes shocking, especially in his monochromatic images. “The black and white ones were raw and emotional images that you often did not see in his colour pics,” he said. “There was a fluidity and freedom to them that I just loved. He was an artist in black and white, a true photographer war artist.”
Tim was the author or co-author of several books, including Requiem, a collection of photos taken by the 135 photographers from all sides who died covering the war before the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975. Another acclaimed book of his was Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden, about his return to Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1990s and his tormented search for the remains of Sean Flynn, a fellow journalist who went missing in Cambodia in 1970.
I learned about Tim when a girlfriend gave me his first photo book, Nam, published in the mid-1980s, as a birthday gift. At the time, she and I were newbie reporters dreaming of becoming foreign correspondents with dangerous assignments in mind. I found his war photos exhilarating and disturbing, as if I had been thrust into a countrywide gore scene.
I have followed his work ever since, and met the man in New York in 1998, a few months after I joined The Globe and Mail. I had travelled to Manhattan to see his Requiem photo exhibit at the Newseum and managed to snag a couple of hours with him. Tim was then 54, white-haired and weary-eyed.
He gave me and a few others a tour of the photos that still preyed on his sensibilities. He stopped in front of a sequence of photos for Life magazine by Larry Burrows, the highly acclaimed British war photographer who was killed in 1971 with three other journalists when their helicopter was shot down in Laos. One of them showed a chopper crew chief shouting to his gunner as two wounded comrades, one of them dying, lay crumpled at his feet. In another, a Viet Cong guerrilla was being dragged face-down behind an American armoured vehicle.
In one particularly harrowing image, an abandoned child, perhaps two years old, squatted alone on the ground as South Vietnamese Marines, their backs to the cameras, left a village. Tim couldn’t get over the fact that the soldiers killed the parents and just walked away. “I find this the saddest picture in the gallery,” he told me.
I remember thinking: Oh, the casual brutality of war. Tim’s very essence that day – his sapped, burnt-out air – confirmed to me that the same thought had never left him.
He was not always weary. The reckless, passionate lifestyle of his early days as a war photographer are legendary and recorded in several books, including Michael Herr’s Dispatches, one of the most popular accounts of the Vietnam War. Mr. Herr wrote the narrative for Apocalypse Now, and Tim is said to be the model for the crazed, fast-talking photojournalist played by Dennis Hopper in the Oscar-winning Vietnam War film directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
The celebrated photojournalist sat down with the Globe in 2019 to discuss covering the Vietnam war and the toll it took on him. Tim Page died at his home in Bellingen, New South Wales, Australia, on Wednesday. He was 78.
Tim, Mr. Flynn and their young photographer friends lived in “Frankie’s House” in Saigon, named after the houseboy who took care of them in frat-house fashion. There, the booze, drugs and sex were rampant, and music from Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and the Rolling Stones blared constantly.
Mr. Herr wrote about Tim putting on a Hendrix record and getting revved up by a, “long tense organic guitar line that made him shiver like frantic electric ecstasy was shooting up from the carpet through his spine straight to the old pleasure centre in his cream-cheese brain, shaking his head so his hair waved all around him.”
In another moment in Dispatches, Tim reveals that he was both horrified and thrilled by war when asked by a publisher to produce a book that would remove all the glamour from it. “Take the glamour out of war! How the hell can you do that? Go take the glamour out of a Huey, go take the glamour out of a Sheridan [tank]. Can you take the glamour out of a Cobra [attack helicopter] or getting stoned at China Beach. … It’s like trying to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of the Rolling Stones. … It just can’t be done.”
Tim’s youth was also a mess of adventures and misadventures, a foreshadowing of his gonzo existence in Vietnam.
He was born in Tunbridge Wells, England, in 1944 and was an orphan; his father went down with a merchant ship when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Second World War. He was adopted when he was less than three weeks old. The unruly kid’s first of three marriages took place when he was only 17; he divorced a year later.
Tim left school and travelled his way across Europe, Turkey, India, West Pakistan and Burma in the early 1960s, where he was routinely felled by venereal disease, hunger, malaria and dysentery. In India, he made money by working as an extra in Bollywood films and soliciting prostitutes for a shipping tycoon.
He drifted into Laos, where he got his first job as a cameraman, shooting for United Press International (UPI). He left for South Vietnam in 1965, inevitably going to where action was as the first U.S. combat troops waded ashore and began shooting up the country. Willing to find hot spots that were avoided by journalists who wanted to die of old age, not mortar wounds, he soon made a name for himself at UPI and, later Look, Life and Time magazines.
But he was not fearless, and came close to leaving Vietnam several times after life-threatening experiences. He was wounded no fewer than five times and was once written off as DOA – dead on arrival.
In one incident, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter he was on was mistakenly strafed by an American fighter-bomber. Tim ended up in the water with 200 wounds, bleeding profusely as he was circled by sharks. The incident that ended his Vietnam era happened in 1969, when shrapnel from a landmine explosion removed a chunk of his brain, leaving him DOA – or so the medics thought until a surgeon detected a pulse in the would-be corpse.
But his career was not over. He spent the next decades documenting other wars, including those in Bosnia and Afghanistan, writing books and covering humanitarian missions such as the UN one in Cambodia in the early 1990s, which sought to create peace and a democratic government in a country wrecked by years of civil war. He was always an anti-war advocate and supported veterans.
“I loved the guy,” Mr. Dupont said. “He was always willing to help fight for the victims of war. In his own weird way, he was a bit of a saint, a spokesperson for humanity. In many ways, he was misunderstood. He wasn’t just a crazy photojournalist.”
I came to view Tim the same way as I viewed my father: not as just a thrill-seeker, but as a truth warrior. Yes, they were both mesmerized by the excitement – and glamour – of the war, but they were also repelled by it and let the world know they considered the Vietnam War a crime against humanity.
Eric Reguly is the author of Ghosts of War: Chasing My Father’s Legend Through Vietnam. The book was inspired by Tim Page and contains a chapter about him.