How I went to Cambodia and learned a lot about Vietnam — from the men who covered it first. By Lien Hoang.
As serendipity would have it, I was due for a trip to Cambodia at about the same time as a remarkable number of journalists who for decades watched up close as history unfolded.
If you’ve watched Apocalypse Now or The Killing Fields, you have an idea of the men I’m talking about. If you’ve been to the War Remnants Museum on Vo Van Tan Street, you’ve seen the labour of love belonging to one of the men in particular, Tim Page. He created the museum’s war photography exhibit with fellow photo legend Horst Faas, the German editor for the Associated Press who chose to publish the controversial image of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack.
Faas died last year, but not before working with Page to collect hundreds of snapshots by Vietnamese and foreign photojournalists, which would go on permanent display at the museum as “Requiem”.
While in Phnom Penh recently, I ended up at the same table with Page during an Australian embassy barbecue. He talked about the work it took to get the list of Vietnamese photographers from officials, and then to search the archives for their names and save their work. He’s written several books and his partner, Mau, laughed about the cheap copies peddled around Southeast Asia. She saw a copy with the cover of one book, but the contents of another.
A few days earlier, I’d also listened to Page during a journalism panel that followed the screening of Frontline, which features Vietnam War footage by Neil Davis. The Australian videographer was one of the few foreigners at the Presidential Palace when the North Vietnamese tank rammed through the gates in 1975. He’d memorised some lines in Vietnamese: “Welcome to Saigon, comrade. I’ve been waiting to film the liberation.” After some hesitation, the soldiers let him stay.
Davis also filmed the infamous summary execution of a Viet Cong soldier, and in Frontline, he described preventing a similar killing by turning his videocamera on the would-be shooter.
The panelists talked about their friend Davis (one joked that he’d been quite the looker), and about the region and the state of journalism. In between hits of a joint, Page told the standing-room-only audience that nothing would ever rival the photos that came out of the Vietnam War. The conflicts since, from Kosovo to Iraq, have not produced the same level of historic and iconic images.
A couple seats down was Jimmy Pringle, a Scottish reporter who’d done two stints in Vietnam for Reuters. When we first met, Pringle reminisced about going into countries long before others could, such as Cuba and North Korea, and even China during the Cultural Revolution. He made friends with Zhou Enlai and broke the story about the “accidental” plane crash that killed Lin Biao after a failed putsch against Mao Zedong. But first he was in Vietnam, where his office alongside what’s now 30 April park gave him a front-row seat to the Tet Offensive. I asked what it was like to cover the war from the US side, and he corrected me that he wasn’t on either side; I would hear this caveat again and again from other war correspondents.
On the opposite end of the panel was Kurt Hoeffle, who spent decades as a cameraman for CBS before retiring in Hamburg. He covered Cambodia from 1970 to 1971, when he and his crew once had to talk their way out of a brief capture by the Khmer Rouge. Later I approached him at the bar to ask about his work since, and Hoeffle recalled travelling everywhere from Bosnia to Rwanda on the job; in both places, he’d helped refugees escape certain death.
He was sitting next to Roland Neveu, a French photographer and one of the journalists to stick around for Pol Pot’s takeover. Currently, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is using his photos during their prosecution. Together he and I wondered why he hadn’t been called in for testimony.
We wondered because Al Rockoff had testified. He’d entered Vietnam as a US soldier and emerged as a dauntless photographer. Besides the multiple injuries he’d gotten in Vietnam, Rockoff made a name for himself going over the border to capture the Khmer Rouge on film (when they weren’t capturing him). He was asked to testify because, like Neveu, he’d hung around the French embassy after the fall of Phnom Penh. And today, as with a few other journalists of his time, he continues to record the region’s history.