He was surrounded by Peter Arnett, Nick Ut and other friends. Sixty-ish and movie star handsome, his English/Australian accent caught my attention. He was greeting them all, trading jabs, and catching up. Tim Page, the British photojournalist, flanked by filmmaker Tiana Thi Thanh, commanded the center of attention. I rushed to snap a photo of these renowned journalists. We were gathered for a dinner cruise on the Saigon River. The occasion was the Reunion of Media Veterans in Ho Chi Minh City held during the 30th anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam.
As luck would have it, I sat next to Page at dinner and caught a glimpse of his world as he, Nik and Pamela Wheeler discussed their families and latest projects. As the wine flowed with the evening, somehow that conversation between Tim, Nik, and Pamela segued into a very bawdy exchange between Tim and me. How did we get there? My introduction had just progressed far beyond what I knew about Page when the boat set sail that evening. A legendary shooter well known for giving his audience a very close view of the Vietnam War, he was the inspiration for the photojournalist character Dennis Hopper played in "Apocalypse Now."
A day tour on the Mekong River between Mytho and Ben Tre Province brought us together again. Page wore an olive green MAG shirt from the Mine Advisory Group that he co-founded. A long scarf was draped around his neck and a Leica with an old dented lens hood hung over his shoulder. He was giving advice to a young photojournalist. We got into a van to head south from Saigon toward Mytho. Not quite outside the city limits, Page asked the guide if it was a non-smoking tour and proceeded to light up saying it was good for brain damage. Dirck Halstead exclaimed, "We're back in Vietnam," and began to interview Page about being wounded by "friendly fire" on a Coast Guard cutter. You can see this in the accompanying video. A van packed with eight people on a bumpy ride along a Vietnam highway was the last place I would have imagined hearing some of this photographer's most intimate memories of his experiences covering the war.
In the interview, Page described how while he was helping to load wounded soldiers into a helicopter, his unit commander stepped on a 250-pound anti-tank landmine which exploded about 10 feet in front of him. He was severely wounded by the flying shrapnel, some of which lodged in his brain. It was a miracle that he survived the accident. Following extensive neurosurgery, it took him 10 years to fully recover.
This accident, combined with the fact that his friends, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, went missing in Cambodia in 1970, caused Page to give up war photography. However, he became an activist using his photography and experience to document the aftermath of the war. In 1991 he established the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation (IMMF), whose mission is to honor the 300 journalists from 24 countries who died covering all sides of the Indochina conflict from 1945–1975. The IMMF believes the memory of the dead journalists is best served by encouraging a new generation who will chart the development of the region in years to come. The IMMF has held workshops for the past several years to train and mentor journalists in Vietnam and neighboring Asian countries. The most recent one was held last month, as reported by Steve Northup in this issue of The Digital Journalist. "Requiem," the book he compiled and edited with Horst Faas, and the exhibition of the same name displayed at the War Remembrance Museum in Saigon, resulted from his work for the IMMF.
Page has also used his photography to publicize the plight of landmine victims for MAG, the Mine Advisory Group. This organization assists in destroying landmines and other weapons left behind after conflicts have ended.
Page has received numerous awards and commendations including Vietnam's highest honor, the Cultural Hero of the Revolution Award; the Overseas Press Club's 1997 Robert Capa Gold Medal Award; The American Society of Media Photographers Award; the NPPA Honorable Lifetime Achievement Award; and an honorary M.A. from Britain's University of Kent. He was the subject of the BBC film "Mentioned in Dispatches." And "Darkness at the Edge of Town," a film produced in 1991, re-created his search to discover the fate of his friends Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, who disappeared in Cambodia in 1970.
His books include: "Tim Page's Nam" (1983); "Sri Lanka" (1984); "Ten Years After" (1987); "Page after Page" (1988); "Derailed in Uncle Ho's Garden" (1990); "Mid-Term Report" (1995); "Requiem" (1997); "The Mindful Moment" (2001); and "Another Vietnam" (2002). An exhibition of 250 prints of Page's work from the past 40 years was recently on display at the Brisbane Powerhouse in Australia.
A fitting end to the day tour with Page was a visit to the Island of Phoung in the Mekong River. During the war this had been a sanctuary free from weapons and was inhabited by a sect known as the Dao who prayed for peace 24 hours a day. They were led by a chief monk, an ex-French-trained chemical engineer who we were told sat on a stone slab beneath a flagpole meditating and eating only coconuts. His philosophy advocated peaceful means of reunifying his country. The remains of the retreat we saw were Disneyland-like: dragon-entwined columns, a multi-tiered tower with a great metal globe and a three-dimensional map of Vietnam. Page said he had come here periodically throughout the war to escape the insanity. He had been ordained by the Coconut Monk.
© Alison Beck
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