As a photographer for United Press International (UPI) and Reuters, Bob Strong flew on “Air Force One” with Ronald Reagan, saw a vehicle hit by an explosive device while embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq and experienced a huge earthquake in Mexico City. In Central America, he captured images of the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua and was stationed in Bogota during the height of the Columbian drug wars. Now he is leading a more relaxing life in Incline Village, Nev.
“I was lucky; I hit it at the right time. If you were starting out today, you couldn’t do what I did unless you work for the New York Times. I had a great time.”– Bob Strong
Strong’s father was in the U.S. Air Force, serving in locations all over the world. He was an amateur photographer who would create slide shows of his travels and these presentations were the impetus for Strong’s interest in photography.
Strong’s first job as a photographer was in 1972 in Richmond, Va. He earned $35 a week mostly shooting rock concerts. In 1978, his lucky break arrived. “I became a stringer for a UPI photographer. He called me to cover stuff when he was too busy,” said Strong.
In 1982, he was hired in the UPI Washington office where he covered the White House. According to Strong, he went everywhere with Reagan. He would follow the President by motorcade and fly in the back of “Air Force One.”
“Sometimes they would bring all the photographers in to the Oval Office. We would kneel down in front of the President’s desk and have 30 seconds to click off a bunch of photos,” said Strong.
In 1984, UPI sent Strong to Mexico City. He was there when an earthquake violently shook his hotel. He grabbed his camera and captured some of the first shots of the devastating quake that killed 25,000 people.
“All the communications were down. I had to fly to Monterrey, Mexico, to transmit the pictures,” said Strong.
It was a busy time to be a photographer in Central America. He remembers traveling to El Salvador during the civil war. “You got off the plane and would see soldiers everywhere. All the bridges had checkpoints and the army was suspicious of journalists. They thought if you were a journalist, you were a communist,” said Strong.
In 1985, Reuters bought UPI. Then in 1986, Strong was sent to Bogota about the time Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel was big news. He was on the road 10 months of the year, visiting every part of South America and the Caribbean.
“There was so much unrest in Haiti, it was very scary. There was a complete breakdown of law and order and it was before news agencies had security,” said Strong.
He did all this before digital photography. “We would set up chemicals and an enlarger in the bathroom of our hotel. Then you had to put the photos on a drum and send them over the phone line. Each picture would take eight minutes, so you could only send six to seven pictures a day,” said Strong.
In the 1990s, the long hours and tight deadlines led Strong to decide to shoot for magazines, instead of a wire service. He lived in Miami, Brazil and New Delhi, India, over the next few years before spending nine years in New York as a freelance photographer. In 2000, Reuters hired him back as a copy editor in Singapore, then he became Reuters chief photographer in Iraq in 2004.
In Iraq, he would travel embedded with the troops, sometimes for weeks at a time. “People were shooting at you, you could feel bullets whizzing over your head,” said Strong, who added that the biggest danger were the car bombs. “I was behind a truck that got blown up, right in front of us.” His photos of the aftermath of that bombing are some of his most powerful.
After a few years in Iraq, it is understandable that he was ready for something calmer, so he headed to Sweden.
“It couldn’t have been more different. Lots of cross-country skiing, ski jumping and travel shots,” said Strong.
Over the next five years, he would take breaks from the calm life of Sweden to head to Afghanistan and to shoot at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In 2016, Strong’s sister, who lives in Vermont, bought a house in Incline Village and asked her brother to caretake it for her.
“I wasn’t ready to retire, but, hey, it was too good to be true,” he says.
Now he shoots images of Tahoe, as well as work for Reuters. In fact, he spent several long nights during the Olympics helping to edit a steady wave of images of the hockey games.
“I was lucky; I hit it at the right time. If you were starting out today, you couldn’t do what I did unless you work for the New York Times,” said Strong. “I had a great time.”
| bobstrong.com, @bobstrongphotography