Award-winning photographer, former UPI Saigon photo bureau chief Bill Snead dies

"I fell in love with journalism and making pictures when I was 17," Snead wrote on his website.
By Scott Smith  |  Feb. 15, 2016 at 5:26 PM
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LAWRENCE, Kan., Feb. 15 (UPI) -- Photographer and journalist Bill Snead, who managed United Press International's Saigon photo bureau during the Vietnam War, among other journalistic feats in a wide-ranging career, died Sunday after a battle with cancer.

A longtime resident of Lawrence, Kan., Snead began his journalism career in 1954 with the Lawrence Journal-World at age 17 while still attending Lawrence High School.

Snead went on to travel the world, covering everything from sports events like the Super Bowl to the horrors of war in Vietnam, the Balkans and Iraq.

"He was recognized as a world-class photographer, one of the best, and an excellent writer," said Dolph C. Simons Jr., editor of the Journal-World newspaper, in the newspaper's obituary for Snead. "He was a visionary thinker and doer, fearless in many respects, and a hard worker always seeking better performance by himself and his associates."

Snead went from the Journal-World to the Capital-Journal in Topeka, Kan., the News-Journal in Wilmington, Del., and then UPI, where he worked in Vietnam and Chicago. After UPI, he went to work for National Geographic and The Washington Post, and later returned for second stints at the Journal-World and the Post.

American MPs take the last Vietcong holdout from the U.S. Embassy during the Tet Offensive in Saigon in February 1968. The prisoner holds a U.S. government ID card. He was taken to a local hospital, where South Vietnamese MPs escorted him to the back of the building and executed him. Bill Snead/UPI

Former UPI co-workers remembered Snead as a strong professional influence and a genuinely nice guy. One posted in a closed Facebook group for former "Unipressers," writing "my dear old friend Bill Snead, a great loss to photojournalism. There are so many wonderful memories with Bill in the past 40 years. His smile and wonderful sense of humor, working with him, going out to dinner, social events and just sitting and talking. Going through our different cancers. A wonderful bond and friend. With respect to a great photographer and photo editor. You will be missed."

Snead also taught in the journalism and design schools at the University of Kansas in his hometown of Lawrence. He continued to work on a freelance basis as recently as 2015.

Photographer Gary Settle, a friend of Snead's, told the Journal-World about how Snead's planned 1991 European vacation turned into a war assignment when battles broke out in the Balkans.

"Working his way through Albania, Yugoslavia, Romania, Iraq and Turkey, he covered events as a million Kurdish refugees were driving out of Iraq into Turkey, found ways to process his film, made prints and got them transmitted back to The Washington Post," Settle told the Journal-World in an email.

The year after his photos from the Balkans ran, Snead won Newspaper Photographer of the Year from the White House News Photographers Association, and was a runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize in news photography.

Snead's haunting war images illustrated a side of conflict not often seen, with an eye for a unique take. He posted some of his best shots online. The Journal-World also posted an extensive gallery containing even more of Snead's photography -- among them a 1955 shot of Kansas University freshman basketball recruit Wilt Chamberlain.

An M60 machine gun lies next to a rice paddy, where South Vietnamese soldiers search farmers for weapons and connections to Vietcong guerillas. Bill Snead/UPI

Snead battled cancer for several years before succumbing to the affliction at age 78. He used his skills as a journalist to tell that all too common story through the eyes of friend Kathy Jardon, documenting the end of her life over two years in words and photographs for the Journal-World.

On his personal website, where Snead posted just a handful of the thousands of photos he took over his career, he wrote:

At last, a website to call my own. We loaded our first version with photos I had handy and captioned. Captions, by the way, are the most abused/neglected element in journalism.

I fell in love with journalism and making pictures when I was 17 and a Lawrence High School senior. That was in 1954. Camera of choice was a Speed Graphic using 4x5" film. My good fortune began when I was hired by the Journal-World's photo-boss-from-Hell, Rich Clarkson. I worked for him nine years in Lawrence and Topeka, each year tougher than the previous. "That's good enough" was not in his vocabulary. His emotional kicks in the ass gave me a head start in a trade that I care for as much today as I did a hundred years ago.

Snead is survived by his wife, Dona; a son, Mark, and his spouse, Liz, and their children -- Sam, Emma and Sally, all of Arlington, Va.

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