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RONALD REAGAN made me a professional photographer. When Jimmy Carter lost the election in 1980, I lost my job. I had been working as an advance man for the White House Press Office as a campaign supernumerary, and was in Ohio on that fateful day when the voters changed the course of American politics. I made it to Washington late that night and tried to blacken it all out with my fellow campaigners in the sub-basement of a Washington Hotel.
When the dust of the election and my addled mind cleared weeks later, it became obvious to me that I was in a lot of trouble. I had gone all in on the campaign and had no job to fall back on. One day, while watching a news report on the imminent launch of the first space shuttle, Columbia at Cape Canaveral, the thought occurred to me that maybe I could photograph that event. After, all, I tried to convince myself, "Hadn't I once been a photographer?!"
So, since I didn't have a good camera, lenses, any film or any real experience for that matter, I had to borrow it all from friends to make the idea work. But, it all came together, despite the sense from just about everybody that I had finally lost my mind. Jimmy Carter actually made it possible: On his last day in office he signed the papers for my White House press pass as a photojournalist. It set in motion 11 years of journalistic practice.
I jumped on my motorcycle in April, 1981 and drove to Canaveral armed with a second hand camera, a super slow broken down lens and 20 rolls of Kodachrome film that everyone had said was the best film in the world, but, in fact, no photographer used for news stories.
The long and short is that the picture I took the day of the launch was published in the Newsweek edition on the historic launch the following week, ominously enough under the byline - "Roger Watt, Transworld." I was so happy that - even though they misspelled my name - I thought I was about to become the next Robert Capa
And, to top off the problem that being a rookie photojournalist causes, I never got the original transparency back from Transworld (in fact, they went out of business a few years later). The only thing I have left is this worn clip now in a frame. But, it celebrates the achievement and I'm happy to have that.
Of course, five years later, when driving a taxi, tending bar, and shooting news photos of Ronald Reagan and his cronies, I was certainly no Capa. I was just a journeyman photographer trying to hack it in Washington against the greatest news photographers funded by the biggest magazine and newspaper operations in the world. Even though Gamma Liaison in Paris agreed to move my photos, in many respects, I didn't have a chance.
But, I made it work. In 1985 I made more money than I had ever made, and had a regular clientele of commercial and news magazine business to make me think I was moving up.
I took the job as a photo editor at the National Enquirer because they were doubling my salary and I could move to Florida. In most respects, it was the worst decision of my life (but that's another story). Safe to say, I had become a very effective paparazzi photographer and knew how to hire and direct other photographers to get the picture we needed. The trouble was, I had to lie, cheat and steal to do it.
Eventually, in about 1991, I quit photographing and changed the focus of my life. I stopped lying, cheating and stealing and worked to help others.
Regrettably, I wouldn't pick up a camera again for about 23 years.