Indochina - Vietnam War through lens of veteran Australian correspondent

"THE first time I was DOA (dead on arrival) was when I was sixteen."

So begins the interview with photojournalist Tim Page, who died initially in a motorbike accident before being revived, and again nine years later, after an incident with an anti-tank mine at the age of 25.

Page fell into war journalism at the cliched and tender age of 19. It was a classic case of the wrong place at the right time, or right place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it. "I went straight into the deep end of the swimming pool, I had no idea," he said.

Page was in Laos working for US Aid as a teenage agronomist when he was given a camera and roughly "110 bucks" for filling in for a friend for six weeks, while his friend went to Tokyo to learn how to become a fully fledged correspondent.

The year was 1964 and the war in Indochina was escalating.

Planes were regularly being shot down over Ho Chi Min trail in Laos and there was constant friction and fire fights between the Royal Lao army and the Pathet Lao.

"It was a wacky situation, and Air America, and opium and smack and all that stuff," Page said.

"So for six weeks I was UPI's (United Press International's) stringer in Laos and got myself a Pentax and…literally within two weeks of getting the camera, there was an attempted coup.

And the coup took out the post, the PTT (which is the post, telephone and telegraph - in French), took out all of the communications, they closed the airport, closed the river crossing, ba bomb, ba bomb, ba bomb." Page's story trails off rhythmically.

"So my mate who was the UPI guy wrote the piece, and I rode round town taking snaps on my motorbike, and processed the film at the little tailor shop across the way from the hotel in Vientiane and then… just rode through the army and the rebel checkpoints."

Page took a boat across to Thailand, went to the nearest air force base, and forwarded the images.

"So UPI had exclusive coverage of the event for four days," he said.

When the coup was over, the bureau chief came in from Saigon and offered Page a job.

"Ten days later I was in Vietnam as a staff photographer."

The quality of his pictures must have won him the position - only 10 or 12 images were published - along with the perceived craziness demonstrated by riding a motorbike through mixed rebel and army lines, which Page says wasn't a hassle at all.

"I mean I did feel in vague danger but not ... you know when you're 19 you're bulletproof, virtually.

That's why old men send young men to die, I mean we send thousands of them over the top and they do it."

Both of Page's own brushes with death had differing effects.

The motorcycle crash changed his trajectory in life. It had the effect of:

"Bugger all this; plodding through life, getting a job, going up in rank da da, da da, da da, earning a quantum little bit of money.

That ceased to have any appeal whatsoever," Page said.

Four years later he was photographing dead bodies.

The second time he died, in 1969 after six years as a war photographer, was very different because by that stage Page had been injured many times and lost count of how many deaths he had witnessed.

"I mean I'd photographed…it was a constant event…it was like watching touchdowns at a rugby game, in a sense you're a sports photographer.

You see so many that you're basically almost inured to it…you anticipate it, you turn it into an image.

"Obviously it fazes you, obviously it's ground in there in the background - all this horror and madness - but you don't let it bubble because you've got to actually interpret it.

You've got to somehow come back with an image, you can't come back with an empty roll of film, that's your job.

"But you understand the finiteness of life…and you understand how, especially once you've been hit a couple of times, how absolutely fragile we are," he said.

Now 72, Page continues to photograph the ugly after-effects of war.

"When I go back to South-East Asia I do a lot of work with the landmine victims.

"Every time I go close to someone who is holding a bloody landmine I go, 'What the hell am I doing standing this close to one?'''

He also does a lot of work in Vietnam documenting the inter-generational damage done by Agent Orange, which combined dioxin 2,4,5-T (2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4-D.

"It's up to four generations of deformities now," he said. "It's got a 50,000 year half-life, like nuclear waste. I mean we're still using it in this country, to spray along railway tracks and stuff, to kill weeds.

"So I suppose that's still a worthwhile cause. I mean our children's, children's, children's children are going to be dealing with it still.

And it's not going to go away in places like Vietnam because it went into the aquifer, the water table, and it comes up through soft fruit like bananas and papaw. and shit like that. And it's also in the male genes so it's constantly passing down through generations.

"I mean maybe this is another reason you survive a war, to exemplify the horrors of the stuff.

I don't think we're ever going to be warless, don't get me wrong.

There's too much money in aerospace and defence.'' This leads Page on to alternative uses for the defence budget, cures for cancer and the biggest problem on the planet in his eyes - overcrowding.

"So where do we start? Birth control. Which maybe means we have to get rid of the Catholic Church."

But back to Page's thoughts on photojournalism and the power of a graphic image:

"Any good war picture becomes an anti-war picture. Almost automatically. I'm not saying every war picture, but virtually every war picture becomes an anti-war picture, even in the sense of medals being given out or something, because you're complimenting somebody for violence, in a sense," he said.

"I'm not trying to be moralistic about this. But unless we have graphic images and we have tough pictures, I don't think we learn."

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