“Everybody’s vain. Everybody wants their frame even when they’re dying.”(Tim Page, October 3, 2019, War Photo Limited Museum, Dubrovnik, Croatia)
How does an evening go after a statement like that? A whirlwind of history, images, candid discussion, stories, discomfort, and hard questions.
I went to the War Photo Limited Museum in Dubrovnik on the evening of October 3, 2019 to see Tim Page, one of the most famous photojournalists from the Vietnam War talk about his photos and experience. I had been to the museum previously and saw NAM Contact, the exhibit on Page’s work. (I also saw the permanent collection, The End of Yugoslavia, but my reaction to that collection and my conversations with its co-founder and war photojournalist, Wade Goddard, will wait for another post).
I was a little girl during the Vietnam war and there are only two things I remember: that my uncle was there and he needed food. I have very distinct memories of being in my grandmother’s kitchen watching her, my aunt, and my mom putting snacks into boxes to be shipped to him. There were probably other things that went into those boxes but I was very focused on the snacks that I, most likely, wished I were getting. I was a child, after all. I felt really special when they allowed me to help to put items into those care packages. I don’t remember watching any of the news on TV about the war. Perhaps I was shielded from the images and footage that people like Tim Page were risking their lives for so that the world could see what was happening there. As Tim told those of us gathered at the museum that evening, Vietnam was the first “TV” war where the photos helped to change public opinion across the United States. His job as a war photographer was to capture what was happening because without them, nothing would have stopped.
Truth be told, I don’t particularly want to view images of war, its aftermath, its victims. They are hard to look at. The reality of what people do to each other is unshakably disturbing and takes a little of my soul. Once seen, I can’t un-see it. It may sound odd, but my role as a viewer of human tragedy means becoming part of the narrative and unless I do something with what I’ve seen, I feel complicit. Unlike the images in the Love Stories Museum I last wrote about, war and its aftermath is not a side of human nature that I like to face. The most difficult photos for me to sit through that night were the ones of children living with birth defects caused by Agent Orange.
War “bring us closer to what we hate about ourselves” (Tim Page, October 3, 2019, War Photo Limited Museum, Dubrovnik, Croatia).
Another mic drop.
Maybe that is why I ask myself to view these images. If we don’t face what we hate about humanity (and I would argue, ourselves), then how can we stop it? How do we envision a different possibility?
Tim covered the Vietnam war at a time where there was no media censorship. The U.S. military actively encouraged the press to be involved and share what was happening with the public. Tim did. He reported being only able to carry about 20-25 rolls with him and he wished he could have shot even more pictures. But, getting those photos out was not easy—it would take 25 minutes to send just one using a large drum-like machine that reminded me of the old mimeograph machines that printed in purple ink.
He’s now in his mid-70s and you would never know that he was wounded four times and pronounced DOA after the last one–he is vivacious, a riveting storyteller, and unapologetic. One of the things that struck me about him was his unflinching tenacity to get the photos. In his book, Page After Page: Memoirs of a War-Torn Photographer (1989), he describes how he started to see his life as “free time” (after a near death experience) which might explain the places he went that most others would not. In our time together at the museum, he talked about how he had to completely shift his way of thinking in order to go to the places he did. He never expected to get out of Vietnam alive and he said if he was going to die the next day, he would take every chance he got but admitted that “we saw things that no one should see.” I wondered aloud how he coped and, without missing a beat, he listed them: alcohol, cigarettes, pot, sex, and drugs. Having a delete button and being able to sleep were crucial “otherwise I would go bloody nuts.”
Risk-taking is not part of who I am yet I am thankful for those photojournalists like Tim and Wade who enter spaces of conflict to bring back what they witness. I felt privileged to sit in a room with these incredibly animated men talk about their profession, making a living, ethics, the meaning of images and their impact, and what we do with the current proliferation of images.
After purchasing NAM Contact and getting his autograph, Tim picked up his Leica camera (the only kind he uses) and said, “wait”. Tim Page took a picture…of me. Is he correct? Are we all just vain? Might it be one of the last things that people remember about us? I don’t know but if I’m honest with myself, I have to be with all my discomfort and admit he’s right. I got my frame.