Q&A: Veteran War Photographer Tim Page on Cambodia, Conflict and Getting High

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Chor Sokunthea / Reuters

Photographer Tim Page and other foreign journalists pray at a Buddhist ceremony in a village in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia, on April 22, 2010

Tim Page covered three decades of conflict across Indochina after falling into the industry as a 21-year-old during the attempted Laos coup of 1965. Page smuggled the only pictures of the putsch out of the country and was offered a staff job at the UPI press agency as a result. A native of Kent, England, he was shot four times during the Vietnam War and underwent extensive therapy after losing a sizable chunk of his brain. His penchant for chemical inebriation and eccentric personality was the inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s tripped-out journalist in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but it is his stunning pictures that have adorned countless publications the world over that remain the real stuff of legend. Now 69 and living in Brisbane, Australia, Page was in Cambodia during last week’s disputed general elections and spoke to TIME about the changing atmosphere there as well as the shifting world of war photography.

How was the mood in Cambodia during the last few weeks of campaigning?
It was an incredible event. There were two cop pickup trucks burned but no real trouble at all. In 1993, I saw [the body of] a village chief who committed “suicide” by shooting himself in the back with an AK-47 six times. This time has been unbelievably peaceful. The youth want jobs and they want change. Everyone’s going through some sort of tertiary education, but there’s very little at the end of that. We’re an overcrowded planet — if we spent one buck on birth control for every million spent on aerospace and defense we might just get somewhere.

What interaction have you personally had with Prime Minister Hun Sen?
I’ve photographed him 10 times or so — previous elections and recently at land-title ceremonies. He didn’t campaign this time, and I think that cost him votes. He’s been in power too long and getting all his kids to marry VIPs and keep it in the family. It’s a scandal, and it’s a scandal from the top down. Of course, he’s done a lot for the country — the infrastructure is much better than it was even 10 years ago. There are roads, power in villages and schools going up everywhere.

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Having experienced the dark days of the Khmer Rouge yourself, how do you feel about Hun Sen using the threat of their return as scare tactics in his campaign?
They only just started history in Cambodian schools last year. The average kid voting is just not interested in this stuff — 30% of the country’s under the age of 25. It doesn’t do anything for them. People want young people up there running things. They want to see a fresh broom come through and they’re sick of seeing the corruption. People don’t want to be ripped off and they want transparency. They don’t mind paying some tax, but they don’t want it disappearing into another Lexus down the block, which is what is happening.

What did you think of the ruling party’s electoral victory? Was opposition leader Sam Rainsy correct to challenge it and call for an investigation?
I think the result was very fair. The CPP [the ruling Cambodian People’s Party] is going to have to give up ministerial positions and come clean about a lot of stuff. If the U.N. investigates here, then they should really investigate what happened in Florida [in 2000]. There were problems here, but I don’t think it would have made that much difference — perhaps one more seat. I think it is good people analyze this but it will not change Cambodian history.

You were in Cambodia for the U.N.-backed elections in 1993. There is a story that you served the entire press pack marijuana-laced chicken soup on top of the Phnom Penh Post’s old building. Did that arise out of a sense of mischief or celebration?
It just seemed the right thing to do as it was my birthday party and just happened at the time of the election. Before the U.N. rocked up here, you could go to any café in this country and the menu would have soup with or without weed. It would be omelette with or without, salad with or without, or steak with or without. But then the U.N. decided that you couldn’t smoke dope. We did the election up in the northwest by Siem Reap, and we got three kilos [of cannabis] for three bucks, and I think three chickens cost us five bucks in Phnom Penh. We bought a 15-liter soup army-canteen thing and made this thing that looked more like compost than soup, as we didn’t have a strainer or anything. We passed army-canteen cups around, and everyone just guzzled it down — there must have been at least 100 people on this roof. We called it “laughing chicken soup,“ and they were all grown members of the media and just loved it. Many didn’t even leave the building. Nobody got to the stadium to catch the first vote. AP didn’t get to the vote, Newsweek didn’t, Reuters didn’t. [Fellow war correspondent Michael Herr’s] house was covered with bodies by the end — it looked like a disaster area.

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When you’re in a combat situation and confronted with unspeakable horrors, are you ever tempted to self-censor your work if you feel the images might glamorize what’s happening?
No, not when you’re out on the edge. You’re not thinking about the politics, you’re thinking about the composition of the image, trying to stay alive, trying to be useful if somebody’s hurt. Your job isn’t to be a medic or a machine gun but to document what’s going on, so you look for the right angle, the right exposure, the right lens. Today you just press a button on your iPhone — the skill has dissipated somewhat. But you don’t think of any of those political or cultural issues — you’re out there confronted with whatever horror going on, so just get on with the job and find the best frame you can. Perhaps that’s why war photography is so strong, because there are no political considerations. You are presented with the rawest of reality in front of you. At the same time, pictures of Khmer Rouge [defiling] dead Vietnam women or GIs playing football with a Viet Cong head — you are not going to run that picture.

Do you feel that your photographs and those of your peers changed the world?
Of course. I went to antiwar demonstrations in New York, and it was weird to see demonstrators holding up pictures you’ve shot and then get beaten up by the demonstrators and beaten up by the cops. In the end, I think it was the cumulative effect of constantly being confronted by these images on the cover of magazines — any war photography is antiwar photography. It was an aggregate thing that so much was published. Every day we were pumping out pictures the world had never seen, without being a snob about it.

I’ve heard you comparing a degree in photography with a degree in “bum wiping.” Any advice for budding snappers out there?
Don’t. Being a photojournalist now is the most fraught way of making a living. I’m no longer involved in the news, but I do other type of work. To make a living as a photographer these days is impossible. I was there the other day, and there were 100 people with cameras, video cameras and iPhones. And where are you going to sell the pictures? There’s no money involved in the business anymore. Even if you’re a known entity, getting a job is no easy thing.

You’ve not been shy about indulging in drugs throughout your career. Do you think that this has colored your work in any way?
That’s a hard call. I don’t really care to be quite honest. I did a lot of work with Hunter S. Thompson in the 1970s at Rolling Stone. Is my reputation ruined by illicit smoking of something that should be legalized? I think in the next two or three years America will wake up like Australia and decriminalize drugs and make a profit. [Thompson] was very intense. He’d take this handful of pills of various colors — I’ve no idea what they were — in the morning with a vodka and orange. If he offered me a handful of pills, I took the handful of pills as well. I was young and foolish back then.

Obviously there are many more bloody conflicts taking place now. Do you ever have the urge to up sticks and cover Syria or Sudan?
No. I was a U.N. peace ambassador in Afghanistan in 2009 for three months teaching journalism students. I’ve never been so terrified in my life — IEDs [improvised explosive devices] everywhere. You can’t travel, you’re stuck in the traffic jam, and you’re terrified. I leave my guesthouse, and the Indian Embassy blows up and there are loads of body parts in my bedroom. I did [East] Timor and the Solomon [Islands], but I don’t want to go near conflicts any more. Now I’m working for NGOs and governments. I have a sweet life in Australia instead.

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1 comments
MPNunan
MPNunan

I did not partake of the soup in 1993  - I was in Siem Reap for the elex. But the house belonged to Michael Hayes, not Herr.  Michael Herr is the author of the brilliant book, Dispatches. Michael Hayes was editor of the Phnom Penh Post.