Tim Page and Classics For A Cause: Saving Return Veterans
There are those photographs in history that remain etched into our memory, synonymous with certain events, practically intertwined with our culture and destined to remain timeless. Tim Page’s photographs are of that class.
The veteran photojournalist has covered a number of historical events from an attempted coup in Laos in his early years to his well-known work from the Vietnam war. His images were unlike those from any previous conflict, they were in the action and they communicated in a way that reshaped photojournalism.
He has written numerous books about his experiences as a war-photographer, and the character played by Dennis Hopper in the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’ was based on Page. It is undeniable his influence is far-reaching.
We had the pleasure of talking with Tim Page about his life, photography and his collection up for auction with the Classics For A Cause foundation. The foundation raises funds for return veterans, an issue that is of personal significance for Page.
The Creative Issue: Was photography something that always interested you?
Tim Page: My parents gave me on my eighth birthday a little box brownie type camera, like an old 127 film camera and I very quickly graduated from that to something a bit more roll film like. When I first went overseas at the age of 14, I got myself a little Agfa Camera. I always had a camera, always had to sell them, always lost them – I wish I had all that film from back then. By the time I got to Laos in 1963 I got my first pocket 35mm Camera. I got lucky in a sense because I took pictures of an attempted coup and from that I got offered a job in Vietnam for $90 a week. At the age of 20 it is hard call not to say yes to something like that.
TCI: You left home at the age of 17, were those next few years what you were expecting?
TP: I thought I would get a ship to South America, going to the jungle looking for some Conan Doyle novel type stuff. These were the books I had been reading at school, I wanted to become a forestry officer in Burma like Orwell’s book. I had read Orwell’s Burmese days when 15 and I just knew that I had to end up somewhere in the far east. The rest of it was accidental, it was before the hippies came along in the late 60s early 70s, between London and Sydney there were probably no more than 500 backpackers.
TCI: What were some of the most unusual experiences in that time?
TP: Being down and out on the streets of India and being so sick I ended up in hospital. Then I walked to Everest and sitting in Nepalese temples. I travelled with a bunch of Sikhs in India for a week, and I could always go to a Sikh temple and get food. At the age of 18 and 19 you are bulletproof and very naïve, and yet you are plunged in the deep end of a pool. I arrived in Calcutta and there was a cholera epidemic and there were bodies all over the streets. You don’t see that kind of nonsense, you see a bit of it in films, but we don’t see it on television anymore.
TCI: How did those experiences shape the 20-year-old that arrived in Saigon?
TP: You have to confront seeing someone being abused and tortured, the first time you see bodies that have swelled up in the heat and all of that. I had seen cremations in India and bodies from those cholera epidemics and total poverty. That next step is to watch it happen in front of you, and your job at that time, and this is the irony, is that you are there as a participant and your job is to take pictures of it. You either have to sink or swim because your job is to come back with hopefully a pocket full of film, all good exposures, you change film under incredible circumstances and that you have enough pictures to satisfy the New York Time, The Times in London or the Sydney Morning Herald. You are shooting for the front page of a newspaper and initially you don’t realise the impact that is having on people. Vietnam in a sense was changed by the images. Peoples attitudes changed, I’m proud of constantly punching at people’s psyches to turn them against the thing. In a sense we were helping the other side, but the other side was the right side, the Vietnamese wanted independence they didn’t want to be bombed, they didn’t need to be occupied, they didn’t need to be raped and pillaged so the American industry could flourish.
TCI: Did you ever struggle with the ethics of taking photos in warzones?
TP: When you look at today’s conflict like Syria and the Afghan how many pictures actually lodge in your head? Lots of very good photographers but you can’t remember the frames. Whereas Vietnam is very iconic in the sense that you associate it with I’ll say 10 pictures. They were contentious, they made everyone sit up and think, they made everybody question what was going on.
TCI: Do you think that the freedoms you had as a photojournalist are still available to photojournalists now?
TP: It is different style of coverage now, you don’t have newspapers, you don’t have magazines, you are shooting for online services that pay $70 for a picture. There is nothing left afterwards, there is no film, there is no residue, and there is no magazine sitting on your coffee table. All of it is done digitally so it isn’t remembered. With Vietnam we lived there, our home was downtown Saigon and you lived the war. Everyone around you was Vietnamese, you couldn’t escape being there. Maybe the only comparable situation is Sarajevo where you had a hard-core bunch of photographers, journalists and tv crews who smuggled themselves in and out. You now go to a war as a visitor, you fly in and you have a producer and cameramen.
TCI: Do you think that means that there is a perspective that people watching at home are missing?
TP: I think it has turned the news into entertainment, there is still very good reportage, but I think that generally it has turned into a bit of a circus. In journalism classes some people are taught to write 600-word pieces, the whole thing is being condensed down to a grab or a flash. You don’t have many in-depth articles anymore.
TCI: Journalism and reporting has changed quite rapidly, just with your time in the industry how have you witnessed that change first-hand?
TP: It is a different way of making a living now, obviously at my age I don’t cover disasters, I still go overseas and do odd bits of work, I teach and do books. The more I go delving through my archive, I find stuff and hadn’t seen before. I realise it is in ‘vogue’, it could be a bit soft the photographic style but now it is called art. It is strange, stuff I shot in the sixties, I’ll make a really excellent print of it and somebody walks out the doing having paid $750. Digital has driven a lot of people back to film and getting that ‘look’ you can’t get with digital. If you look at photographers at an event, they all have the same lenses on the same cameras, it is all the same zoom lenses. Then everybody has the same look. The nice thing about what I have shot in Afghanistan and Bosnia is that I have weird pictures.
TCI: What do you think makes a powerful photograph?
TP: Popular consensus shock, a powerful image in a news sense can being very traumatic, but then a powerful picture can be an Attenborough-like picture of a penguin’s head. It could be a golden buddha. I am always surprised by people choose out of my files; they’ll pick pictures that I wouldn’t necessarily make a print of. You can get too close to your own stuff.
TCI: What were the cameras you used to shoot with?
TP: I started with a Pentax that lasted six weeks, with the first bit money I made I bought a couple of Nikon X’s and that was it with three or four lenses. I soon as I made money, I bought a Leica, a few weeks after that I had my second big spread in Life magazine and bought a second Leica. Because of the conditions like, mud, helicopters, dust and water the cameras basically became disposable, I must have gone through 11 cameras. There was an underwater Nikon, which was totally sealed and if you had one those you didn’t have to worry about going under water.
TCI: The auction of a number of your photographs for Classics for a Cause will contribute to donations to support Australian veterans suffering from mental illness. Is this an issue that is extremely personal for you?
TP: Anybody who survives conflict, be they civilians, soldiers, journalists, bystanders is basically traumatised by the event. Some people can come completely apart, other people survive it, and it seems to bounce right off. When I look back at the first world war and the horrors of that veterans who came back from that they gave little plots of land in the outback, resettled and found a certain recovery. With today’s wars you come back on a plane and land in Brisbane, and you’re expected to go downtown and be neighbours again in two-seconds flat. You just spent a year of your life as a professional machine gunner. There are not enough transition points. What you have seen and done, nobody should see or do. We see things that nobody should witness, and we have to live with that shit. You have to somehow put that in a neat, folded envelope and tuck it away somewhere and never let it out. A lot of people don’t have people close to them that understand all those dilemmas. It surprises me that it takes a mob like Classics for a Cause to actually raise funds for a cause, that should be government business. We are integrating damaged people; you have used them to do damage and be damaged. In my book the people who sent them there are responsible for their health thereafter. I strongly believe that if you have got someone that comes back from what they have been doing in Afghanistan or Iraq you can’t just flick them away. You have to look after these people because the experiences they have had are valuable. That can be put back into use. Their understanding of trauma, improvisation, paramedic issues or whatever it is can be used. It is a hard call to describe how PTSD gets to someone or makes them dysfunctional. We lost 41 men and women in Afghanistan and since then there has been 500 suicides. It is a no brainer, you need to have cannabis oil, MDMA experiments and retreats for these people. These veterans are valuable.
TCI: Do you have a favourite photograph?
TP: There is one picture that is looking into a clearing after a battle. A few years back I was contacted by this Smithsonian in DC, and they said they wanted a scan of the picture to do it 25×40. I thought 25in by 40in was a big picture, so I said okay this is going to take a bit of time. They said no we meant 25ft by 40ft, they said they had real helicopter and they wanted the picture behind it on the wall – mural sized. I sent them the negative and they blew it up literally building sized. Maybe because of that and it is icon picture, it is not gory. It is a very dark picture, there are half-a-dozen guys, it is raining, and you are looking through a clearing and there is a helicopter sitting there. It is one of those pictures, maybe because it is a quiet picture it is more personal than something dramatic. It is in those in-between moments in war.
A selection of Tim Page’s photographs are currently up for auction with Classics For A Cause, you can find more info here.