The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tim Page, storied Vietnam War photographer, dies at 78

The British photographer was wounded four times while covering the war and inspired Dennis Hopper’s character in ‘Apocalypse Now’

The British photographer Tim Page surrounded by children at a coffee stand in Cambodia in 1991. (Jeff Widener/AP)
9 min

“I’d heard about him even before I came to Vietnam (‘Look him up. If he’s still alive’),” the journalist Michael Herr wrote in “Dispatches,” his powerful 1977 book about the Vietnam War. “I’d heard so much about him that I might have felt that I knew him if so many people hadn’t warned me, ‘There’s just no way to describe him for you. Really, no way.’ ”

Herr was writing about Tim Page, a renegade British photojournalist who was known for getting so close to the action that he was wounded four times. Once, after a U.S. patrol boat he was aboard was attacked — by U.S. planes and by South Vietnamese soldiers and the North Vietnamese-allied Viet Cong guerrillas — Mr. Page was evacuated to a hospital, where more than 300 pieces of shrapnel were removed from his body.

“He was twenty-three when I first met him,” Herr wrote, “and I can remember wishing that I’d known him when he was still young.”

Vietnam War reporter Michael Herr, who helped write ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ dies at 76

Arriving in Vietnam in 1965 at 20, Mr. Page spent much of the next four years capturing the fighting with his camera, becoming one of the war’s most renowned and fearless photojournalists.

Mr. Page, who published his photographs and recollections in several books and sought to keep alive the legacy of colleagues who never came back, died Aug. 24 at his home in Fernmount, New South Wales, Australia. He was 78, and the cause was liver and pancreatic cancer, said his friend Mark Dodd.

In Vietnam, Mr. Page rode his motorcycle to the front lines and climbed aboard helicopters to take photographs that showed the dust flying beneath the rotors, the desolation of dispossessed Vietnamese villagers, the gurneys laden with fallen soldiers. His pictures were featured in Life magazine, Time, Paris Match and other journals.

When he returned from the battlefield, his house in old Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) was the headquarters for nonstop parties, fueled by huge amounts of marijuana, LSD and opium, as rock albums blared at high volume.

“What a great place to have a war,” Mr. Page told the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2016. “Good-looking women, great food, beaches, the best dope.”

Mr. Page was, in large part, the inspiration for the drugged-out, risk-taking war photographer played by Dennis Hopper in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War film, “Apocalypse Now.” In 1975, Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner wanted to send gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson to cover the final days of the Vietnam War with Mr. Page. Thompson, known for his rampant drug use and love of guns, turned down the offer, reportedly calling Mr. Page too wild even for him.

If Mr. Page was “crazy and ambitious,” in Herr’s words, he also was a quick-learning, self-taught photographer with a deep-seated desire to portray the sorrow and futility of war.

“Any war picture is an antiwar picture,” he told in 2013. “I’m not saying photography stopped the Vietnam War,” he added, but “I think it contributed to swaying public opinion.”

Irreverent and cynical, Mr. Page could be annoying to U.S. military officials, but he earned the respect of the grunts on the ground because he was close to their age and walked every muddy step alongside them.

In 1965, when he was with a Special Forces detachment, the camp was attacked one night by the Viet Cong. Mr. Page shot and killed one of the intruders.

“I have no feeling about it,” he told Vice magazine. “I should have feeling. It was just a really bad night. I had no choice. … I’ve never had to use a weapon again.”

In 1966, after a grenade exploded near Mr. Page, he was taken to a hospital by his closest friend in Vietnam, photographer Sean Flynn, the son of the movie star Errol Flynn. Fragments from the grenade were pulled from Mr. Page’s face. The next year, after he survived the attack on the patrol boat, Mr. Page left Vietnam to recuperate. When his wounds had healed, he covered the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War before returning to Vietnam in 1968.

In April 1969, while on assignment for Time and Life, Mr. Page was aboard a helicopter that landed to rescue wounded U.S. soldiers. He followed a sergeant out of the chopper to pick up the wounded. The sergeant stepped on a land mine and lost both legs.

Mr. Page was struck above his right eye by a two-inch piece of shrapnel that entered his brain. He managed to change lenses on his camera and shoot a few frames of film before collapsing in the helicopter. His heart stopped beating three times, and he could hear medics estimating how many minutes he would survive.

He reached a field hospital, where a piece of plastic was placed in his skull. He lost a portion of his brain the size of an orange. He spent time at the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington as one of its few civilian (and foreign) patients, then was transferred to a rehabilitation facility in New York for months of recovery.

“I used to sit and scratch off my own blood and brains from the interstices of the Leicas,” Mr. Page wrote in a 1988 autobiography, “Page After Page,” “though they never looked really clean again.’ ”

Nearly paralyzed on his left side, Mr. Page slowly regained the use of his arm and leg. He walked with a limp, but he noted that it was not related to his brain injury: It was caused by a near-fatal motorcycle accident when he was 16.

In April 1970, while still recovering from his wounds, Mr. Page learned that Flynn and another U.S. photographer, Dana Stone, had been captured in Cambodia. They were never seen again.

Mr. Page spent the 1970s in a fog of drugs — LSD, in particular — while living in the United States. He moved back to his native England in 1979 and later received a $125,000 settlement from Time-Life, for which he was freelancing when he was nearly killed.

In the early 1980s, after returning to Vietnam for the first time in more than 10 years, Mr. Page decided to establish a memorial to honor journalists who had lost their lives in Southeast Asia. He made a documentary film in 1991 about his search for Flynn and Stone, concluding that they lived for as much as a year before being killed in Cambodia.

In 1997, Mr. Page and Horst Faas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer of the Vietnam War, published “Requiem,” which contained the work of 135 photographers who had died in Indochina between 1945 and 1975. Images by Flynn and Stone appear in the book, along with photographs by Mr. Page’s mentors, Larry Burrows and Henri Huet. Both were killed in 1971 when the helicopter they were in was shot down in Laos.

Pictures from “Requiem” have been exhibited in museums in the United States, Europe and Vietnam, and the book won a George Polk Award for journalism. It also received the Robert Capa Gold Medal, presented by the Overseas Press Club of America in honor of the renowned war photographer who said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” (Capa died when he stepped on a land mine in Vietnam while covering the First Indochina War, also known as the French Indochina War.)

“I sat in the hotel in New York the night we got the Capa” award, Mr. Page told the Sydney Herald in 2005, “and I burst into … tears. What an honor. Capa was killed on my 10th birthday in 1954.”

Timothy John Page was born May 25, 1944, in Tunbridge Wells, England. He was adopted several months after his birth and never learned the identity of his birth mother. His biological father was in the British navy when he was killed in World War II.

His adoptive parents lived in Kent, where his father was an accountant and his mother a homemaker.

At 17, Mr. Page left a note telling his parents that he was “leaving home for Europe and perhaps navy and hence the world.” He made his way from Europe to Pakistan and eventually Thailand, working in a brewery, as a cook and as a smuggler of hashish and cigarettes. He taught English and sold encyclopedias and lightbulbs.

In “Page After Page” — one of more than 10 books he published — Mr. Page said he could arrange drug deals in multiple languages by the time he was 18.

He was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Laos and taking pictures on the side when his photos of an attempted Laotian coup were published. He received a call from United Press International’s Vietnam bureau chief, asking, “Hey kid, would you like a job?” Forty-eight hours later, Mr. Page was in Saigon.

He was married and divorced three times. Survivors include his companion, Marianne Harris, and a son, Kit.

In recent years, Mr. Page taught at Australia’s Griffith University and often led photography seminars in Southeast Asia. His archives contained at least 750,000 images he had shot through the years, including in Vietnam and during conflicts in the Middle East, the Balkans and Afghanistan.

In the end, he told the British newspaper the Observer in 2001, war is “about the wastage of the human race. … Sure, you can make it look like a movie — you can make a tableau vivant out of it — but then you turn your camera, no matter how many degrees, and all you see is pure suffering. Who are the victims? Everybody who’s in a war is a victim.”