Tim Page: Pictures of war and peace

Taking photographs of the Vietnam War almost killed Tim Page four or five times, but it also made him a legend in his early twenties. Kevin Jackson meets a man now devoted to good works and finding enlightenment
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The Independent Culture

It's a rum thing, finally meeting someone you first encountered 20-odd years ago as a character in a favourite book. No one who has ever read Michael Herr's Dispatches – described by the New York Times and many others as the best book ever written about the Vietnam War – is likely to forget its portrait of a barmy young English photographer called Tim Page. Herr calls him the most extravagant of all the "apolitically radical, wigged-out crazies running around Vietnam", covering the conflict in a manner unthinkable in previous wars, incomprehensible to the press veterans of Korea and the Pacific, and frankly insufferable to the military brass.

Page and his good buddies in the press corps, such as Errol Flynn's dazzlingly handsome son Sean, were right in tune with the elements of the US armed forces most likely to be considered a morale problem: insubordinate, idiosyncratic, unkempt; cranked up on Hendrix and the Stones, whacked out on dope, opium, acid and anything else they could grab, which was plenty; and young enough to be able to talk to the "grunts" (average age 19) in the new lingua franca of Sixties underground culture. As Page puts it today, reminiscing about the "Green Machine": "There were a lot of people with peace beads and peace signs and protests on their jackets... the dross of America had been swept up to fight a war they didn't want to fight... so you fitted right in with that!"

At one point in Herr's book, Flynn tells the Englishman that he makes the Marines and the military spokesmen nervous – "They don't like your hair, Page, and you're a foreigner, and you're insane, you really spook the shit out of them"; so nervous that they are secretly plotting to kill him. Still, however much the older men in suits and Ray-Bans or the even older men in khaki despised the crazies, there was one thing they had to admit. Whatever else they were, these scruffy, doped-up kids weren't cowards. They bled for their scoops, and sometimes they died: Flynn, for one, was soon to be declared missing in action.

Just 23 years old when Herr first met him, Tim Page was already famous throughout the war zone as the freak who'd take his camera where no one else would go, and had paid the price three times over: at Chu Lai in 1965, where he took shrapnel in the legs and stomach; at Danang in 1966 (more shrapnel: head, back, arms... and a gory photo in Paris-Match of Sean Flynn dragging him to hospital on a broken door); and, most catastrophically, from US "friendly fire" in the South China Sea, where a massive air-strike on the boat where he was hanging out, mistakenly identified as Viet Cong, left him floating in the water for hours with over 200 wounds. Worse injuries lay not too far in the future.

Yet the overwhelming impression left by Herr's account is not of Page the near-suicidal headcase but of Page the cheery hedonist, the Frank Zappa fan, the widely read raconteur and bull-session artist, the old-school Englishman Abroad who referred to Danang as "Dangers" (with a hard "g"), the joker and connoisseur of recreational pharmaceuticals. "If he was too absorbed to talk," Herr remembers, "he'd stand in front of a full-length mirror and dance to The Doors for an hour at a time, completely lost in it." (When I told Page that this passage always put me in mind of the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now, which Herr co-scripted, he didn't even bother to say anything, just gave a word-to-the-wise-guy nod of assent.)

Heady and terrible days, but, as Page points out – still chafing a bit about the last journalist who paid him a visit a couple of weeks ago, and wouldn't talk about anything but the war – it was all over for him 30-odd years ago, well before the Americans finally pulled out. Because 30-odd years ago, his final bout of Vietnam War reportage came to an end when a land-mine blew two inches of metal into his brain and rendered him (so the doctors all said, until he proved them wrong) permanently paralysed down one side of his body.

His life since then has not been so dangerous, but it has hardly been uneventful. He's been refining the skills he learned under fire and applying them to more peaceful subjects, and he's been working towards a greater understanding of the Buddhist faith he first encountered in Asia. Michael Herr, he tells me, has also become a Buddhist, and uses his screenwriting loot to fund a religious centre.

Page's latest collection of photographs is a handsome creation called The Mindful Moment – a title that neatly embraces both Henri Cartier-Bresson's "Decisive Moment" of photographic revelation, and that quality of "Mindfulness" that is the ideal state of Buddhist meditation. Focused mainly on South-East Asia, and edited with considerable intricacy and tact for visual repetitions and symmetries, it weaves together flashes from both past and present: horrors, yes, such as an Agent Orange baby (1992) or an amputee soldier (1989), but also shrines, monks, Confucian funerals, greenery, and some painterly, near-abstract shots. It ends with a new, smiling Buddha at Tat Luang: after all that has gone before, Page remarks, some sort of blessing was needed.

These days, when he's not off on the road somewhere, Page lives in one of the most agreeably somnolent parts of southern England, on the outskirts of a Kent village. His own patch of real estate includes a medium-sized house (16th century in parts, bare-beamed kitchen with windows opening out onto three distinct views of the landscape – the kind of place that tends to cause envy when spread across the layouts of Country Life), a handful of out-buildings variously filled with an office, an archive, a huge barn full of chainsawed wood and assorted detritus. Somewhere on the premises is a clapped-out old Lada, buried – so he cracks – to commemorate the final fall of Communism in Europe.

Even in these tranquil surroundings, though, you don't have to look very hard to see the small tokens that hark back in one way or another to that old crazy Asian war: T-shirts, posters, a Vietnamese phrase book. The first thing I notice on his white van when he comes to pick me up from the station is a sticker for the international campaign against land-mines; these days, Page is involved in a number of human-itarian projects in South-East Asia and elsewhere. He'll be going back to Vietnam early next year, but this time to teach a course in media studies; and in the last few years a fair part of his work has come from various relief agencies.

The prospect of meeting him is, obviously, a shade daunting: you half expect him to be a mass of scar tissue and mangled limbs, and addled by shrapnel and drugs. Not so: he's in remarkably good shape for a man who has walked away from the Reaper four or five times, and says that his conspicuous limp is a legacy not of a land-mine or machine-gun fire but of the near-fatal motorcycle accident he suffered at the age of 16, not too many miles away from here. In fact, "near-fatal" understates the case: he was dragged into hospital clinically dead, and owes his resurrection to the NHS. Under his thatch of whitening hair, he's still recognisable as the good-looking, roguish, quizzical dude in combat gear who squints up at you from page 101 of The Mindful Moment, snapped by a friend during the battle of Chu Phong Mountain in 1965.

After a brief interval to field a phone call from a journalist who wants his views on present-day coverage of the war against the Taliban (he sends the guy up more than slightly, telling him that he'd hate to be covering this war because Afghanistan is a dump, where there are no good restaurants or foxy chicks... "Vietnam was a beautiful place to have a war!"), Page doles out the coffee and other hospitality and we fall to talking; or rather, he talks, muses and digresses – in a deep, slow, ruminative, often hesitant tone – and I listen. It's absorbing stuff, though hard if not impossible to catch in summary or extract, except for the hoary jokes: "What's the Afghan national bird?... Duck!" So here are just a few slices:

Page on Buddhism: "I think that given half a Catholic wafer of choice, most people would segue quite happily [into that faith], without too much pushing, should they find the right... master, teacher, guide to explain the methods of access best for you. We do need a master, we do need guides." Incidentally, he attributes his own rapid learning curve in Vietnam to being taken under the wing of "masters of our business" – and competitors – such as the American war photographer Larry Burrows. "I know that the way I see colour, juxtapose colour, is very much in the Larry Burrows style. I see my black and white as very much in the style of Capa, Cartier-Bresson, Marc Riboud. They may be tired classics, but that's what the business is about, how to make iconic images."

On the spirit of photography: "I've always seen the connection... that the moment you touch a shutter... that there is a Zen magic in getting it right, as a master would with one brush stroke."

On how his photography has developed in 30 years: "I'm a frustrated painter... I see photography as being a bridge between painting and reality... I'm more aware of being interpretative, but not to the point of being unrecognisable, I don't abstract to the nth" – and he points to an image in The Mindful Moment of cups and chopsticks mounted on a wall bracket.

Our formal talk over, we set about an odd but urgent chore. Yesterday, somewhere in the grounds, Page somehow lost the three miniature Buddhas he's been wearing about his neck like a dog tag for years and years: bad karma. I had hoped that our meeting, like Page's new book, could end with a moment of Buddhistic blessing; but, try as we might, we couldn't find them. Earlier, though, Page had been talking in spiritual terms about the fragility of life, life as process, and the need to let go of attachments to the past: so maybe that small failure did us no harm at all.

'The Mindful Moment' is published by Thames & Hudson at £29.95

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