Q&A: Tim Page Diggers in the Nam

19.12.13

When reading up on Mr. Tim page, it becomes exceedingly clear that the guy had a knack for finding trouble; he did some crazy shit. You would be hard pressed to invent a more freaked out, far out bloke. He barely came out the other side of the Vietnam conflict, covering it for nearly five years; wounded four times, the last of which left him pronounced DOA at the hospital with a hole in his head.  Page covered the Six Day War, enjoyed the best extra-curricular activities Saigon had to offer, and at one point was in lock up with Jim Morrison. Page is the author of nine books, was the Photographic Peace Ambassador for the UN and case in point; the inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s maniacal character in Apocalypse Now, need we say more?

Perhaps the old adage “right place, right time” serves Page well, or that he benefited from an age where bluff and balls could land you in some pretty far out places. Regardless, Page went on to take some of the most memorable photographs of the Vietnam conflict. Rambling down the hippy trail as a young man, his final destination was to be Australia, serendipitously for Page, the road ended in Laos. Strapped for cash, UPI offered him a job as a photographer. Ten days later he was out in the thick of it, armed with a camera, bullets whizzing past his ears, all at the ripe age of 20. 
His compassion for young men in combat and the correspondents that photographed them has led to a life long dedication to immortalise their memory. Requiem, Pages’ most lasting achievement, is a dedication to those correspondents who didn’t come back, those that risked life and limb to document one of the twentieth centuries most horrible conflicts.

2013 marks fifty years since Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, and in recognition, Page is bringing to life never before seen images for Diggers in the Nam from his extensive archive. Page has been sitting on some remarkable photographs, the Australians in combat were a unique bunch, they had learnt the hard way in the jungles close to home and by all accounts were known for being pretty resourceful and quick witted. Page’s new series is a significant contribution to the memory of these young men. We talk to Tim about the series and why now?

Poignantly, the exhibition coincides with the 50th Anniversary of the Australian involvement in Vietnam and also opens close to Remembrance Day, was it a conscious choice to release these photos now, did you feel it was time? Could you tell us about the collection you have put together for this exhibition?

The collection was specifically put together for the 50th anniversary of Australia’s involvement in the Viet Nam war & the collection being hung at Blanco Negro so close to Remembrance Day was a perfect fit. My pictures from the war in Viet Nam are usually associated with American troops but I spent quite a bit of time with Australian troops and covered John Gorton’s visit to Viet Nam for LIFE magazine. In fact I was there on Day One of the Aussies arriving at Bien Hoa So these are images that have not really been seen.

Having spent time with many of the different forces in Vietnam, including the Americans and South Vietnamese, what stood the diggers apart? What stands out as something inherently distinct in Australian troops, and perhaps conversely something that you found common to all young men in combat?

The professionalism of the diggers was outstanding. They operated in a totally different way to the American troops – having learnt their lessons in the jungles of Malaya and Borneo, which was still going on at the same time as Viet Nam. They also had very good training at the jungle warfare training centre at Canungra in Queensland. As a photographer going out with Australian troops – and I was not alone in this thinking, you always felt a bit safer. That you were going to get back alive. The way they operated in the jungle was incredibly professional. They would never call in a chopper for re-supply on top of themselves. Instead supplies were dropped a couple of kilometers away and guys would sneak out and bring them back. The Americans would often call in choppers, right on top of their positions to re-supply them – sometimes with things as frivolous as ice cream. The thing common in all young men in combat is that they are fighting for each other. Not for the generals back at home making the decisions, not for the politics, not for any belief – but for the guy next to them; because if he is alive, they are alive.

 At 20, you were quite young to be going out into perilous combat zones, the same age as many of the young troops you went out to document, how did you adjust to dealing with the stress of these situations? it must have been a steep learning curve.

I was so green when I arrived in Viet Nam, I wasn’t even coming out of the ground. My first assignment I was sent out with Eddie Adams and told to shadow him. That first day out was with ARVN troops (South Vietnamese), the americans hadn’t arrived yet, they only had advisors. The ARVN captured a V.C. suspect, probably just a farmer. He was tied up, had a bayonet shoved in his stomach and pulled up to his chest. I froze. Eddie kept shooting. I got a rocket from UPI for being on the same patrol and not getting the pictures. If you are going to be there, to bear witness you have to find a way to cope and deal with that. Everyone is different but for me the lens was a filter and I knew that these images were important – it was only years later that I realised how important. That we were covering a war with no censorship, that had never happened before and will never happen again. It was an opportunity to show what the consequences of war are, that decisions made thousands of miles away impact brutally and totally on people that are more often than not innocent bystanders. Consequently those images were used in the protests back in Australia and America, so I still truly believe that a good war picture is an anti-war picture. When a country sends it’s young men to fight and die in wars, it’s our duty to tell the truth and our duty to look at what is really happening to them and the people that are affected by it. When we don’t do that it is a crime in itself.

The images for this exhibition have never been published, how was the process working with Chris Reid in bringing these images to life?

Oh, Chris Reid is the master. Australian photographers are incredibly lucky to have a guy like Chris here. His interest in your work is amazing. He wants the photographer in the dark room with him telling him about the images, what’s going on in them, who they are, where it is. That kind of passion for the frozen moment brings your pictures alive. He understands the connection of the eye to the shutter, the Zen of the frozen moment. Chris is also a great editor, he has pulled images of my contact sheets that I had ignored – and he’s usually right. An example is the one of the heli assault in Phouc Tuoy Province; 5 choppers with the troops patrolling on the ground in the long green. I hadn’t selected that but Chris did and quietly printed it, he thought it had an ‘Apocalypse Now’ quality. He was right again.

It seems imperative that this record is available for posterity’s sake, could you tell us about your involvement with the Australian War Museum and how your photographs of Australian troops in Vietnam came to be held there?

The Australian War Memorial is one of the best in the world and one of Australia’s best exports is cannon fodder. We have fought in just about every war since the Boer War and the AWM doggedly collects and collates the images and ephemera of soldiers and Peace Keepers for posterity. They love film, negatives and slides that are real, not post produced. They hold not only my images but all the members of DEGREE SOUTH have images held there – including our Degree South ‘Absent Friend’, Sean Flynn. Sean was born in 1941 and entitled to his fathers (Errol Flynn) nationality. They not only collect images, they also have a huge audio library – understanding that getting these memories is super important, once they are gone, all we have is hearsay.

It appeared that during the conflict in Vietnam, there was a lot less restriction in regards to access to the conflict, less vetting and control on behalf of the armed forces. From what I have read it almost seemed you could just grab a camera and head to the front, is this true? As someone covering the conflict, how easily accessible was the “story” and how do you feel about the ever shrinking domain of press freedom?

As I said before, Viet Nam was the only war without censorship. This was because there was never a declaration of war. Australia were there as a ‘police action’ and America as ‘advisors’. It was also the first war that was fought with conscripts and was incredibly unpopular. Young guys being sent there because their birthday fell on a certain day & this was at the height of the hippy, peace, free love and psychedelic drugs movement and most of us in the media were the same age and from the same life style as these kids. I was what would be called a backpacker these days – a traveller back then in the 60’s. I had travelled overland in a Kombi from Europe and ended up in Laos working for USAID when there was a coup. A fellow worker, Martin Stuart Fox wrote copy, I took pictures and biked them out to Thailand. We had an exclusive for four days and our reward was a job in Viet Nam covering the war! No degrees in journalism or photography, we were there at the right time in the right place. Quite a few of the Saigon based media had been travellers on the road and this was the biggest story on the planet at the time. All you needed was a letter saying that a magazine or newspaper back home would take your stories and you were accredited – with the rank of captain and entitled to fly in and out of battles/operations on their choppers. We self edited, making sure not to break secrecy of operations or showing more than families needed to see of their loved ones being blown away.

As for the shrinking domain of press freedom? Embed / In-bed. Embedding plays right into the hands of the censors. It achieves what the army call ‘unit cohesion’. How can you be objective when you have spent 4 weeks with a group of guys that you now have a certain loyalty to? How can you report on atrocities that have taken place when they have become your mates?And that is exactly what the army wants – control over you and your story and pictures. How are you going to get people to sign up when there is a war on? Certainly not by telling the truth of how ugly, brutal and oftentimes pointless war can be. As I said before, it is our duty to look and understand what is going on in our name.

You spent over four years documenting the conflict, what was it that kept you there? After coming close to death on more than one occasion what was it you saw in these men that compelled you to keep taking photos?

Saigon was my home. Even when I was wounded four times, it wasn’t until the mine incident that I left. Until then, after every wounding I went back to the house that I shared with my mates. After the mine, I was sent to Japan and then to Walter Reed hospital in the US, at the time I was the first civilian to be treated there. Viet Nam was pivotal to me as it was to many young men at the time. I grew up there, made the best friends of my life there – in fact Martin Stuart Fox, who I shared the house with in Saigon, along with Simon Dring – we all live close by in Brisbane. Simon at the end of my street and Martin a ‘burb or two away. We were all incredibly young, just turned 20. We became men there and formed bonds that have survived to this day. There is also a Viet Nam Old Hacks network run by Carl Robinson from Sydney. we are all still in touch and gather every 5 years in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) for an Old Hacks reunion – though the ranks are thinning. The camaraderie that we had amongst ourselves was amazing, many of us were a media battalion fighting against the government of the day, we were mostly against the war and that Band of Brothers changed history with their reporting and their images – though we didn’t realise it at the time.

Proceeds from the exhibition are to be donated to charity; could you tell us more about your connection with Soldier On?

I wanted to get in contact with wounded veterans that had come back from Iraq & Afghanistan; I am a patron of MAG (Mine Advisory Group), as a consequence of my own wounding from a 105mm anti-tank mine. I wanted to spend some time with and make portraits of them. Australia was a bit behind the U.S. & the U.K. who had ‘Wounded Warriors’ & ‘Walking with the Wounded’ already up and running. I happened to be on the computer searching for Australia’s veteran support organizations when ‘Soldier On’ went on line for the first time – a synergy that was meant to be. I became their first patron – a big honour and went to Canberra for the launch on ANZAC day last year. They have come a long way since then with a terrific guy, John Bale at the helm – Soldier On has two guys walking to the South Pole with wounded veterans from Canada, UK and the US and of course Prince Harry walking with them has lifted the profile of wounded veterans enormously. My own wounding from the mine left me with 200cc’s of my brain missing, hemi-plegic on my left side and the PTSD kicked in later.

Soldier On is making sure that these veterans get the help they need, many of the wounds are not visible and this can contribute to you feeling diminished in the sense that you can’t operate in the world the way you used to – so when I had the idea of producing the box set of ‘Diggers in the Nam’, my first port of call was Chris Reid and we both agreed that a set should be donated to Soldier On. Chris donated his time and the paper and chemicals and had a set framed, which is hanging at BLANCO NEGRO till January and hopefully from there to the AWM in Canberra to let people know they can buy the set and the money will go to help our wounded warriors. So we are looking for a philanthropist, a business man, a CEO of a multinational who may even have been a Viet Nam Veteran, to come on-board and buy that set and make sure that Soldier On keeps going to help any veterans who need assistance.

Diggers in the Nam runs till the 14th of January 2014 at Blanco Negro, Shop 4, 44-54 Botany Rd. Alexandria, Sydney NSW.

Visit Blanco Negro for more information.