Tim Page: 'Every good war picture becomes an anti-war picture'

Tim Page: 'Every good war picture becomes an anti-war picture'

Tim Page has photographed wars for much of the last half century. He sums up his, and others', experiences in a compelling exhibition in Singapore
Tim Page
War photographers have always risked life and limb for a few precious photos.

Tim Page dragged his left leg as he showed us around "Requiem."

He and fellow war photographer Horst Faas have curated their exhibition of Vietnam and Indochina war photos by photographers who paid the ultimate price for pursuing their craft.

He stopped at a wall. It prominently displayed a man in a parka with horn-rimmed glasses, carrying two Leica cameras.

"That’s Larry Burrows. He was my mentor in Vietnam." said Page, who is now 67. "Before he went out into the field, he would always sketch out a picture of the shot that he wanted. Then he would fly and fly and fly until he got that picture."

"He was shot down with a helicopter, and all they found of him was the top casing of his Leica camera.”

CNNGo: Time has mellowed photojournalist Tim Page, who is said to have partly inspired the character played by Dennis Hopper in the film "Apocalypse Now." How did you get into war photography?

Tim Page: War chose me. I was given a camera to cover Laos for six weeks. I took some pictures of an attempted revolution and got exclusive pictures out of the country.

Then UPI [United Press International] offered me a job in Vietnam from that point. After that, I became a freelance photographer for Paris Match. The correspondent left me in the middle of an ambush by myself, and I sold those pictures to LIFE Magazine.

The week after that I had six pictures in LIFE from another battle, and I haven’t had a job since, I have been freelancing since August 1965.

CNNGo: Do you cover wars now?

Page: I do the aftermath of wars. I do the victims of war. I do the results of what war does to people.

I still go to places of conflict like Timor, or the Solomons. Last year, I was in Afghanistan working for the United Nations teaching Afghan photographers and covering the elections.

CNNGo: War photographers believe they will always survive on the battlefield. Why?

Page: You have to believe that you’re going to survive.

But I suppose what happens is that the first time you get wounded, or touched [by a bullet]. You realize how fragile, how precarious, how balanced it all is. And how possible that’s the end.

You don’t think about it. I think that especially when you’re a young man or a young woman, you think you are bullet-proof. You don’t think that I am going to break my leg today, or I am going to die tomorrow.

You think only of good, big things. And when you’re in a war, you don’t think bad things.

CNNGo: How did you survive?

Page: You learn to anticipate: the bang there was a friendly weapon, that bang was an enemy weapon, that was an incoming mortar, that was a bomb.

You understand very quickly the shape of the battlefield. You become a precise survivor. And you pick up the skills by experience.

If you stay alive long enough, you become quite good like Larry Burrows, but then they’re dead. Even your best skills cannot stop the helicopter from getting shot down.

CNNGo: Riffing off Nietzsche's 'Looking into the abyss' quote, the worst makes us at best, numb; at worst, we become monsters. Your thoughts?

Page: The state of the human being, where are we at?

War is the best and worst of humanity. It gives you an understanding of how precarious life is; it gives you an understanding of the meaning of peace. I think you should remember that every good war picture becomes an anti-war picture.

You are not deliberately making anti-war statements but the fact that you have made a good war picture means that it becomes an anti-war statement. The longer you cover wars, the more anti-war, or the more peace-loving, you become.

You don’t want people to die violently. You realize that war is a waste of money and resources … nobody benefits from war.

You cannot bring the dead back. You cannot put legs back on people.

CNNGo: Bong Son,Vietnam, 1966: Henri Huet (AP). When were you most frightened?

Page: When I was blinded. And I could not see. Twice I have been blinded.

I’m a photographer, so to be blind is very frightening -– to never see again. To never walk again, I have been like that. I have been paralysed. I could not walk. You can get around.

But if you are blind ...

CNNGo: What is your pride and joy?

Page: "Requiem." I’ve done 10 books, but "Requiem" is not my work. It’s the work of my friends, colleagues and comrades. They were the people who taught me my work, so it’s like payback for me.

I know that having done "Requiem" I can sleep better at night.

And when I die, I have left something solid behind. Something that I am proud of, and also lifts the names of those who didn’t make it.

"Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina" is now showing at NAFA Galleries 1 & 2, 80 Bencoolen St., open Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-7.p.m. July 13 - August 21. Or visit Tim Page’s website at www.timpageimage.com.au.

I am a computer dude and ex-academic (although I won’t say it too loudly) who took time off to tour Asia and write about it. And I’ve not stopped writing since.

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