As the most fearless of war photographers, Tim Page was wounded in action four times in Vietnam before he had reached his 25th birthday.
Yet the bullets, grenades and landmines failed to stop him taking dramatic, intense and often disturbing combat pictures, which appeared in Life, Time, Paris Match and other journals and helped to shape perceptions of the war.
In the 1992 book The Vietnam War: An Eyewitness History, he was described as a photographer who would “go anywhere, fly in anything, snap the shutter under any conditions, and when hit, go at it again in bandages”.
His injuries were inflicted by both sides, starting with shrapnel wounds in his legs and stomach, sustained during a Viet Cong attack on the US base at Chu Lai in 1965.
The following year he received more shrapnel wounds in an attack at Da Nang, where the airbase was the primary entry point for American servicemen flying in to join the fighting. He was soon back in action, only to be wounded again when US Air Force pilots strafed a coast-guard vessel he was on, in the mistaken belief that it was a Viet Cong ship. Bloodied and exhausted, he spent several hours floating in the South China Sea wondering if he was going to survive, before he was rescued.
His fourth and most serious hit came in 1969 when he had hitched a ride aboard a helicopter sent to rescue injured US soldiers. As it landed, he jumped out of the chopper to help stretcher the wounded. The platoon sergeant stepped on a mine and lost both legs and Page was struck in the head by a two-inch piece of shrapnel from the blast.
Even that did not stop him changing lenses on his camera and shooting a few frames before he collapsed. He was rushed to a field hospital and pronounced dead, but revived and was airlifted to the US, where he underwent neurosurgery and spent a year in rehabilitation and therapy.
“I used to sit and scratch off my own blood and brains from the interstices of the Leicas, though they never looked really clean again,” he wrote in his memoir Page After Page: Memoirs of a War-Torn Photographer. He eventually received a $125,000 settlement from Time-Life, for whom he was freelancing at the time.
He was described as a photographer who would “go anywhere, fly in anything, snap the shutter under any conditions, and when hit, go at it again.”
He subscribed enthusiastically to Robert Capa’s dictum that “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. Yet if he seemed reckless about his safety, it was not simply that he was prepared to throw caution to the wind in search of a shot to make front pages around the world. His fearlessness derived from a karmic belief that he was living on “free time from the gods” after a near-fatal motorcycle accident when he was 16.
“I had seen the tunnel. There was no light at the end and it did not seem scary … This was the dawning, the overture to losing a responsible part of my psyche. A liberation happened at that intersection,” he wrote of his teenage brush with mortality.
The accident left him with a limp — and a lust to push everything to the limit. When not on the front line, he shared a house in Saigon with a group of fellow war correspondents and photographers. Known as “Frankie’s House” after the resident Vietnamese houseboy, it became party central where large quantities of marijuana, LSD and opium were consumed to a soundtrack of blaring rock music.
“What a great place to have a war,” he quipped with characteristically dark humor. “Good-looking women, great food, beaches, the best dope.”
Michael Herr, the war correspondent for Esquire, wrote in his 1977 memoir Dispatches that Page was the wildest of the “wigged-out crazies running around Vietnam”. He rode a motorcycle to the front lines, jumped on and off helicopters like a hobo riding a train and augmented his field gear with “freak paraphernalia, scarves and beads”, according to Herr.
Only once when under attack was Page forced to return fire. In 1965 he was in the bush with a Special Forces patrol when their camp was overrun by the Viet Cong under cover of darkness. Page shot and killed one of the intruders. “I had no choice,” he said. “You can’t alter history. I’ve lit enough incense for him, I’ve meditated on it. I’ve never had to use a weapon again.”
Page’s exploits were part of the inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s manic character in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 movie Apocalypse Now, as was Page’s close friend and fellow photojournalist Sean Flynn, son of the actor Errol Flynn.
While recuperating in America in 1970, he learned that Flynn and Dana Stone, another American photographer, had been posted as missing in action in Cambodia. They were never seen again and Page spent decades trying to discover what had happened to them. He visited the country to seek clues as to what had befallen them and made a 1991 documentary film about his search.
He also founded the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation in honor of those killed in the conflict and wrote the 1997 book Requiem, with his fellow Vietnam War photographer Horst Faas, which contained images taken by 135 photographers who had died in Indochina between 1945 and 1975. The pictures also became part of a traveling exhibition shown in Hanoi, Washington DC, Tokyo, and London among other cities before going on permanent display in Ho Chi Minh City.
His experiences turned him into a committed anti-war campaigner. While recovering from his injuries in 1970 he joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and worked as a carer for mentally and physically scarred servicemen shipped back from Southeast Asia. “I don’t think anybody who goes through war ever comes out intact,” he said. “Everybody who’s in a war is a victim.”
His pictures suggested a genuine empathy with the soldiers he photographed. “Poor whites and blacks plucked from the ignorant and often innocent island of America’s heart and cast without understanding or preparation into an utterly alien and terrifying world,” as William Shawcross put it in an introduction to Tim Page’s Nam, published in 1983.
“Any war picture is an anti-war picture,” Page said in 2019. “I’m not saying photography stopped the Vietnam War but the images we were producing on a daily basis were pounding the American psyche and did help change public opinion.”
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
Timothy John Page was born in 1944 in Tunbridge Wells. His biological father was killed in the Second World War while serving in the British Navy and he never knew the identity of his birth mother. Shortly after his birth he was adopted by a well-to-do Kent accountant and his wife, who brought him up as their own.
Restless and eager for adventure, he left home at 17 with $40 in his pocket, leaving behind a note that read: “Dear parents, am leaving for Europe or perhaps Navy and hence the world. Do not know how long I shall go for.”
It would be another 17 years before he returned to Britain. Making his way across Europe, Pakistan, India, Burma and Thailand, he worked along the way in a brewery, as a cook and as a drug smuggler. He arrived in Laos penniless. Landing a job with the US Agency for International Development, he began sending freelance photos to United Press International. A set of pictures depicting the events around an attempted coup against the Laotian government in 1965 earned the offer of a contract. Some 48 hours later he and his motorcycle were in Saigon and he spent most of the next five years in Vietnam.
He took a break in the Middle East to cover the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War in 1967 but even when on vacation, drama seemed to follow him. Later that year he was in America where he attended a concert by The Doors at which the band’s singer Jim Morrison was arrested for inciting a riot, indecency and public obscenity.
When Page began photographing the affray, he too was arrested and beaten. He spent the night in jail and then headed back to Vietnam, where he joked that he felt safer.
Rock ’n’ roll remained a passion and while recuperating from his neurosurgery in 1969 he attended the Woodstock festival. He also worked for Rolling Stone magazine, sharing assignments with Hunter S Thompson, the founder of so-called “gonzo journalism”.
When the magazine proposed sending Page back to Vietnam in 1975 to cover the last days of the war with Thompson, the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas declined on the grounds that Page was “too crazy” even by his devil-may-care standards.
In 1979 Page moved back to England but he continued to travel the globe with his camera, targeting as ever its most dangerous troubled places.
He later moved again and retired from action, settling in Australia, where he stored his archive of 600,000 images in refrigerated containers and was an adjunct professor of photojournalism at Griffith University, Queensland.
He is survived by his long-term Australian partner Marianne Harris and a son, Kit, from a previous relationship with Clare Clifford.
He was not the kind to compose his own epitaph but perhaps he unwittingly did so in one of his books. “There was too much to shoot. Too many frames to be made,” he once wrote. “And not enough time to do it.”
Tim Page, photographer, was born on May 25, 1944. He died of cancer on August 24, 2022, aged 78