It just clicked
When Damon Winter got his first real camera, a lens opened on a future that would include a Pulitzer Prize, a job at the New York Times, and a portfolio of artful photographs that tell compelling stories
On the wall of Damon Winter’s apartment, there is a piece of art bearing the words: You do not take a photograph. You make it. Winter, who has spent his career as a newspaper photographer, makes photos that tell stories with the restraint and precision that photojournalism demands.
His powerful, emotional images of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, which he covered for the New York Times, won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, when he was 34. In addition to Obama’s second campaign in 2012 and Donald Trump’s in 2016, Winter has covered politics, war, natural disasters, and national issues and events for the Times. While working for the Los Angeles Times in 2006, he was named a finalist for the Pulitzer for his sensitive photos of people who had been sexually abused as children by a volunteer missionary in a remote part of Alaska.
Winter, who was born in upstate New York but grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, now lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His apartment, a block from Central Park, is filled with light. The only photograph on the walls of the airy living area is one taken by his longtime partner, Béatrice de Géa, who is also a photographer. It’s a wintry scene of a frozen lake in upstate New York. Footprints in the snow lead to Winter and the couple’s young son, Noa, silhouetted from behind, standing hand in hand and gazing at what lies ahead.
Winter sat down with frequent contributor Julie Bain over coffee in his kitchen to shed some light on his career.
THE ROTARIAN: When did you get interested in photography?
WINTER: I didn’t take up photography until later in life. I did have a little underwater camera when I was a child — a yellow Minolta 110 — but I don’t remember taking a lot of pictures with it. When I was in college, I asked my mom for a camera for Christmas. Of course, we didn’t have smartphones then. I just wanted to take snapshots of my friends, and I was hoping for a little point-and-shoot. Instead, she got me a nice SLR that I could control myself, and I instantly took to it. After that, I never wanted it to leave my hands. I carried it around all the time. I loved it.
TR: Were you a natural? Were your early photos any good?
WINTER: I think having curiosity, being an observer of life, and appreciating details was definitely a big part of it. But no, those early shots are terrible.
TR: Did that camera spur you to study photography?
WINTER: Yes. I took a couple of intro-level courses at Columbia University and absolutely loved them. We started with film. I learned to develop and print black-and-white film in the darkroom, and I took a color class and did my own color printing. I was studying environmental science, and I loved it, but I didn’t quite see where I could go with it. When the camera came along, it just clicked. After that, I didn’t care about my other classes at all.
TR: How did you become a working photographer?
WINTER: It all came from being accepted into the Eddie Adams Workshop [a tuition-free seminar for photojournalists at the start of their careers]. It was my first real interaction with photojournalism. We shot, edited, discussed, and absorbed photojournalism nonstop. I remember my eyes being opened to some of the most amazing photography and realizing this was what I was meant to do. It was also the first time I learned about how competitive the field can be, how brutal it can be to be critiqued by experienced editors, and how it helps to have thick skin in this business. Unfortunately, it didn’t translate into a job for me immediately. I was rejected from all of the 30-something newspaper internships I applied for, and it was only thanks to the pity of one of the Eddie Adams instructors, Jimmy Colton, that I got an internship at Newsweek magazine. On weekends I freelanced for the Associated Press and eventually built up my portfolio enough to land an internship at the Ventura County Star in Southern California. I soaked up everything I could about photojournalism on the job. I have been striving ever since to tell stories through images that are powerful and informative in a way that is honest, intimate, and artful.
TR: After spending five years at the Dallas Morning News, you moved to the Los Angeles Times, where you did the work that got you your first Pulitzer nomination. How did the sexual abuse story there come about?
WINTER: As many bigger stories do, it evolved from a brief news report in a much smaller paper. It was about reports of abuse in a village in Alaska. Our religion reporter picked up on it and decided to investigate, and it turned into a much bigger story than anyone imagined. We discovered the entire town had been ravaged by it. The extent of the abuse was shocking. Boys and girls, now adults, had suffered abuse as children. We were looking at the long-term effects of that abuse and how it decimated the community, leading to psychological problems, alcoholism, and suicide. That story unfolded before our eyes over the course of about three weeks there. I got snowed in and missed flights, but it was kind of a blessing because I was forced to slow down and spend a lot of time with these folks. It’s a challenge doing such intimate, sensitive photography, where you ask people to open up their lives. So much of it is conveying to them that your intentions are not to take something away from them. And you’re not out to make fun of them or to make them look bad. I had made a particular connection with one family in which both the husband and the wife had been abused years earlier. They had a story they wanted to tell; they had been wronged and they had suffered as a result of it. After all these years, they were ready, and we were lucky enough to be there at that time.
“I think having curiosity, being an observer of life, and appreciating details was definitely a big part of it.”
TR: Your photography for that story was nominated for a Pulitzer, which led to a job at the New York Times. When you were assigned to cover the Obama campaign in 2008, did you have any idea how big that was going to be for you?
WINTER: Not for me personally, but I pretty quickly understood what a big moment it was for the country and for history. It was my first time covering politics. David Scull, my photo editor at the time, said he only wanted a small percentage of the photos to be of the candidate and the rest to be of the supporters and the surroundings and the details that really bring the campaign to life. When I first started, I was seeing with tunnel vision, focused on the candidate and wanting to elbow it out with the rest of the photographers to get as close as possible. David taught me the value of taking a step back and that it was OK to not always be where everyone else is, to take a look around and find something more subtle, even if it meant missing the shot sometimes. Having the support of a paper that wants me to separate our coverage from what readers can get elsewhere is invaluable. It gave me a chance to explore. A lot of elements go into making a photograph that’s memorable. I’m always thinking of how it serves the story and how the photograph tells the story. Unless it has something to say, it’s really not going to stick in your mind. It won’t have lasting significance. Especially toward the end of that campaign, I was pinching myself and saying, “How is it that I’ve gotten so lucky to be covering one of the most historic moments of my lifetime?”
"I have been striving to tell stories through images that are powerful and informative in a way that is honest, intimate, and artful."
TR: How was covering the 2016 Trump campaign different?
WINTER: Press access had gotten worse since previous campaigns. We all covered events from a really restricted little area. However, the first time I covered Trump, I had very close personal access. It was at a campaign rally on the deck of a battleship stationed near Long Beach, California. Afterward, Trump invited the writer and me to come to his golf course and get some “behind-the-scenes stuff.” We met him in the dining room of his golf club in Rancho Palos Verdes, and he showed us around the restaurant. He was interacting with diners. Then he said we had to come see his golf course. The whole time I was trying to take portraits of him and trying to get him to slow down for a second. Someone brought a golf cart over, and he said to hop in with him. He drove us around as the sun was setting. The light was failing, and it was getting too dark to see anything. He pulled up to one hole right on the cliff overlooking the ocean and got out on the green, and you couldn’t see anything. He said, “Look at this ocean! It’s the best ocean you’ll ever see.”
Then, “Wait, don’t take a picture of that. That grass is brown.” But it was totally dark out.
TR: Between those campaigns you covered some traumatic stories, including the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the war in Afghanistan. How did you adapt to those assignments?
WINTER: Haiti was a pivotal assignment for me. It was unlike anything I had ever been exposed to. We chartered a plane. The airport was completely empty, and there was no air traffic control. I saw more bodies on the street driving from the airport into town than I had seen in my entire life. It was shocking. After covering the earthquake, I returned to Haiti over and over to cover the aftermath, national elections, and a cholera epidemic. That experience helped solidify the kind of photographer I was and wanted to be. I realized that I had my limits covering conflict and disaster, and the photos I made in Haiti, and later in Afghanistan, were perhaps not as sensational or shocking as others. But I hoped that they were tender and made with empathy, and that the people who saw my photographs would get even the most fleeting understanding of the profound sadness that comes with losing everything. Since I grew up in the Caribbean myself, Haiti felt close to home. It is definitely not an easy place, but Haitians are a very special people and it was important to me get the story right and to keep coming back. In Afghanistan, I found myself trailing a platoon of U.S. Army soldiers into a minefield — unbeknownst to us. The lead Navy EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] tech stepped on a mine right in front of me. He lost both of his legs in this explosion that shot dirt, smoke, and flesh 30 feet in the air. Everyone froze as we all realized the risk of continuing to do what we were doing. As medics rushed in to help, I realized the only thing I could do was keep working, too. It’s one of the things you learn as a photojournalist, for better or worse, to compartmentalize your fears and emotions, to be able to do the work in the moment. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but you have to tuck it away for later because there’s no time or room for it then and there. After my son was born in 2013, I had to think long and hard about taking those kinds of risks, because the calculation had completely changed.
“It’s one of the things you learn as a photojournalist, to compartmentalize your fears and emotions, to be able to do the work in the moment.”
TR: When you are photographing in situations where people have been wounded, or you are covering a disaster, do you self-censor your images?
WINTER: You have to gauge the situation and figure out how important this photograph is when you weigh it against potential pain that it may cause a person there in the moment, or after the fact, in looking at the photographs. Those are always calculations you’re making in real time. There were some things that I didn’t want to photograph in that way. Those are the kinds of decisions that photojournalists make all the time.
TR: One of The Rotarian’s previous photo contest judges, Steve McCurry, also photographed in Afghanistan and other war zones. How would you compare your approaches?
WINTER: It’s funny you mention McCurry. I did an internship at the photo cooperative Magnum Photos when I was young, and I was always looking through McCurry’s photos. You can tell the way somebody shoots by looking at their contact sheets, whether they’re all over the place and shooting one frame here and one frame there and looking all over. He was really precise. He would find one scene and really work it, over and over, until everything came together. His editing was done in real time. That’s how I tend to approach it.
"I hoped that the people who saw my photographs would get even the most fleeting understanding of the profound sadness that comes with losing everything."
TR: In 2018, you were assigned to work with the New York Times Opinion section as a photographer. How did you land that opportunity?
WINTER: The editor of the Opinion section approached me at a serendipitous time. I felt like the paper and I were both going through a transitional period. It coincided with the paper becoming increasingly visual, including the Opinion section, which had not historically been a home for photography. It was refreshing for me, allowing me to inject some of my own opinions and feelings into my work. It was a great opportunity for me to be creative and thoughtful in new ways. One of my favorite projects, which came before I moved to the Opinion section, was a series of stories on transgender issues. I had to rack my brain to figure out how to best tell those stories. I decided to create multiple-exposure portraits using imagery from the person’s life. These shots were challenging but also fun, and I was really happy with the results.
“When it comes down to it, I’m probably a color photographer, but black and white is really fun and it’s nice to use it in situations where lighting is challenging.”
TR: You work in both color and black and white. In what situations does black and white work best?
WINTER: When it comes down to it, I’m probably a color photographer, but black and white is really fun and it’s nice to use it in situations where lighting is challenging. It is also a way to make the story more visually cohesive and to allow the viewer to focus on moment and emotion, shape, form, and composition without the distraction of color. And in the Opinion section, we are always trying to differentiate our coverage from the news side, especially on stories where I am covering the same events as other New York Times photographers. Black and white has its limits sometimes, but for certain stories it helps tremendously to clarify and focus down your message to its essence. Black-and-white portraiture can also be extremely powerful because it allows us to see a person as we never get to in real life, as if through a filter that cuts right through to a person’s core.
TR: How can an amateur photographer learn more about light and composition?
WINTER: Besides reading and looking at photography books, I suggest looking at artwork. Painters are very deliberate about the way their paintings are composed. Also, learn the basic rules of composition so that you can get good enough to break the rules — and break them with purpose. As for lighting, if you’re using a real camera, the best thing you can do is take it off the automatic settings and learn what the manual settings can do. Once you get a feel for that, then you’re the one in control of the way the light looks. Then you can take a scene and have it not look exactly the way it looks with your eyes, because the camera sees things very differently. Once you take control and understand how light and shadow work and what your camera can do, then your whole world opens up. For people using smartphones, there are also ways you can control the exposure. You’ve just got to play with it.
TR: What’s your advice for amateur photographers trying to photograph people in a less obvious or clichéd way, in a way that helps tell a story?
WINTER: Don’t be satisfied with the first picture you take. Sometimes you have to wear people down a bit and give them a little time to allow their mask to fall. You want to get to a point where it’s just them being them. Those kinds of portraits are much more compelling than when people are posing.
TR: How do you coax that out of people?
WINTER: It helps if you can convey that you don’t need something from them. You want to see them as they are. If they understand that, maybe it helps them to drop their guard a bit. Sometimes just looking them in the eye helps. Frame your camera, then drop the camera a little and engage directly with them. I think Richard Avedon did this. He used a tripod with a cable release so he could stand next to his camera and interact with his subjects on a more personal level. That way the person isn’t looking at this cold, dark lens. Sometimes I’ll peek my head over the top of the camera a little bit and it’ll make them laugh because it looks ridiculous. Try it!
TR: Many photographers publish books collecting their work on a subject. Do you have a book in mind?
WINTER: No. I’ve always been a newspaper photographer, so I’ve never had an exhibit or published a book. For me, it’s kind of painful looking back at my photography. Maybe I’m too hard on myself. It’s not that I feel like photographs have a short shelf life. Maybe it’s the nature of being a newspaper photographer and how quickly the news moves on.
Julie Bain is a writer and editor based in New York City. This is her fifth time interviewing the photographer who is judging our annual photo contest.
• This story originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.