Interview: Dan Winters Discusses Nat Geo “Photographer” Episode, Star Wars, Photographing George Lucas, and More

National Geographic’s new documentary series Photographer takes viewers beyond the legendary magazine’s yellow border, turning the camera around to the people responsible for visually widening our worlds. Nat Geo debuted the series last night with a double-episode premiere and will continue to broadcast the rest of the series on Monday nights, but all six episodes are now available to stream on Disney+ and Hulu. This includes the third episode, titled “Dan Winters: Life is once. Forever,” which had a big-screen debut for a full audience at SXSW. With a body of work that includes photographing sitting presidents, A-list celebrities, NASA shuttle launches, and national treasures, Dan’s episode of Photographer stands on its own as a unique documentary film. While in Austin, I had the pleasure of speaking with the world-famous image maker about the vulnerability on display in his special, his passion for Star Wars, and some advice for amateur photographers.

(National Geographic/Gene Gallerano)

(National Geographic/Gene Gallerano)

Alex: When you were first approached to have your story told through Photographer, did you realize how personal it was going to get? That it wasn't just about your your work, but that it was really about your life?

Dan Winters: I had a sense, and I was hoping it did. I didn't want it to be like a puff piece about some guy who's traveled the world and photographed all these amazing things, because that's just a really one-dimensional view of any human being who's complex, which we all are. So, I had a sense, and I leaned into that. I was totally fine with it, and really open about discussing successes and failures and all the things that make us human. I was really glad that they went that route with it. We had an approval clause in the contract. We went to New York to watch it, and when the lights went up, I just was like, “Don't change anything, I love it, leave it just how it is.” It's an honest representation, I think.

Alex: In the episode, we follow you on an assignment where you want to document a shipyard that destroys old ships, but instead you end up pointing your lens at a different shipyard where new ships are built.

Dan Winters: Yeah. Initially, I'd seen photographs of the shipbreaking in Chittagong, and I think the last series was done in about 2014. And apparently, there's a big international backlash because they're violating international environmental laws. So when we talked to fixers in each of these respective regions, they, right off the bat, were like, “You can't. It's all mob-run. You can't get in.” But I really wanted to explore that piece, and I saw some photographs in Dhaka of the ship repair shipyards, ship building, and it felt similar. And it also spoke to that childhood experience I had with that ship on the beach, the La Janelle, and so I started looking into that photographically to see what was out there, what existed. And it was very underrepresented photographically. I think most of what I found, and it was very little, was either pretty subpar or it looked more like a reporter was there and took a few shots, not really attempting to craft anything. And so we started looking into that, not knowing whether or not we'd be received well, even there, because the practices there are very sketchy as well, safety, etc. We got a fixer that went there and went into the yards and spent time and got clearance from a few of them to shoot. I just took a leap of faith and went, and I'm really happy with what it turned into. It turned into something that was less about the ships and the process and more about the human element, which is kind of more in line with my interest anyway.

Alex: There’s a bit of a parallel between your personal story and the way your wife and son describe trying to keep you together and the fact that you wanted to go cover ship destruction and instead got to experience ship repair. Did that register with you at any point?

Dan Winters: It hadn't occurred to me as much, but yeah. I feel like one of them was a little more heavy and dismal, and the other one was much more optimistic, and the more optimistic one is where we landed. Having had the experience of making the images, once I was in it, I was incredibly grateful that I was in that world.

Alex: Was the shipyard project an assignment or something you pitched yourself?

Dan Winters: I sat down with the director, Pagan Harleman, and the producer, Gene Gallerano, and we sort of plotted how we would go about this, the things we initially imagined that this could be, what could we shoot. So the USS Texas was one project that I was working on that was an assignment. The NASA stuff obviously was Nat Geo assignments. The Iceland trip was for HBO, I was in Iceland to shoot the key art for the new True Detective. So what they would do is check in, and we would say, “Dan's got to go to Iceland in three weeks to shoot this True Detective thing,” and then we did this research and found that ship, The Gardar, beached, and so they were like, “Okay, we're going to go to Iceland and film with you.” The Bangladesh thing was purely something I wanted to do, and they asked me early on before I was even green-lit for the project, “Is there anything you would want to photograph?” I talked about this experience with the La Janel that I had when I was a kid and the idea of shooting something in the ship industry. The shipbreaking originally was the idea, and so that became a piece of the documentary that was solely for my own healing, or my own closure, whatever we want to call it. But that was self self-assigned.

Alex: Another fascinating element of your story is that you found photography through art, through sketching. In the film, we see you preparing for a shoot by sketching a layout, almost the way filmmakers draw storyboards. How often are you satisfied with the final result compared to the vision you had going in?

Dan Winters: For the NASA stuff in particular, it's very technical, and we're setting cameras around the pad that we're not manning during the launch. They're all activated by sound triggers, so it's critical to be very thorough in that case. We usually set between eight and twelve cameras. You don't want compositions overlapping, so the boarding is really important, I think. Going into other things, I think more like loose sketches sometimes of a starting point. If it's a shoot where they're set building, where art direction is required, a set builder obviously needs to know the parameters of the shot so that he can accommodate you with the set. But there's something I kind of adhere to, and I've learned over the years that having a plan going into a project is a good thing, but sticking to the plan can sometimes be detrimental. Because life offers you opportunities that you can't forecast, and it's really important to keep ourselves open to those. It's like, have a plan A, but be willing to pivot to plan B. Many times it's better.

Alex: Your photography has a very distinct style, particularly your images of well-known figures. You can look at a Dan Winters portrait, and there’s a specific quality to it. How long did it take you to develop that style, and what is the secret sauce? Is it all in the lighting?

Dan Winters: I shoot a lot of different types of things, and I think aesthetically, I kind of assign subjects to certain aesthetics. So if I'm doing a portrait of so and so, I'll think back at maybe what is a jumping off point. It's like, maybe I'll do something similar to this shot or that. Going through older work, I'll somtimes notice instances that foreshadow shots I do now, maybe that took place 35 years ago. It's a little kernel of maybe an early sensibility that never really got developed or acted on because it's evolved over the years. That's a really satisfying thing. Like, oh, back then I was thinking like that a little bit. There's a great quote from Harry Callahan, who's one of my favorite American photographers, and he said "I take the kinds of photos that I like to look at." And I think if we're doing that, we're being true to ourselves. Not worrying about what the market will bear. It's more about following our own sensibility. And I think over time, we don't want to lapse into formula. We want to evolve. But as a commercial image maker, there's an expectation from clients, etc, for certain things at certain times. And usually, that's discussed prior to, so it's an amalgamation of the evolution of an artist, and also the awareness of what sort of commercial expectations are

Alex: With the volume and magnitude of the celebrities you’ve photographed, have you ever been starstruck?

Dan Winters: Yeah, George Lucas would have been one that, for me, it was huge. Star Wars was a major turning point in my life. I look at my life as pre-Star Wars and post-Star Wars. I was in science club in high school, and our science teacher, Mr. Helgason, took maybe six or seven of us in the school van down to the Bruin Westwood in LA. We waited through two full cycles of the film in line, all the way around the block, to see it. I remember sitting down and just feeling like this film was shot on location in space. And I watch it now regularly. I watch Star Wars probably once every month or two, the original. And, you know, it's flawed and funny at times, but it still offers a magic that I'd never experienced prior to that. I was a huge Star Trek fan, and they're very different. Star Trek is much more sci-fi than fantasy. But yeah, I would say George Lucas was probably a seminal moment for me. A pinch-yourself moment.

Alex: Your Star Trek and Star Wars fandom led to your love of model building. Is that something you still do? Do you stage photos with your models the way fans do with their Hasbro toys, or do you have any side interests that are solely for you?

Dan Winters: Yeah, I have a full model shop still. Some of my best friends are guys that I worked with. I was a model builder in motion pictures, that's how I started, that was my first job in high school. I still have my buddies from ILM. My friend John Goodson, who's a very dear friend of mine, built all the miniatures for The Mandalorian. So having a regular dialogue with him and seeing what he's up to is really nice. I made a film I just screened in Dubai last week that's full of miniatures and beautiful sets we built over two years. So, to answer your question, yes, and I don't monetize any of that. That's just for me.

Alex: The film makes it clear that you’re an artist, but when I speak with other National Geographic photographers, the term I often hear is “Photojournalist.” Do you consider yourself a photojournalist, or are you an artist who just happens to dabble in that world?

Dan Winters: Artist is a great term because it's all-encompassing. Sometimes I'll be filling out a form that says occupation, and I write photographer, and then I feel like it's a little limiting, but I don't really feel like anybody cares on the application I'm filling out. I've written artist as well because I do a really broad array of work. But I do consider myself a journalist. My first photo job was working for the Thousand Oaks News Chronicle as a general assignment photographer. I had a photojournalist vest, a scanner, two cameras, and a '62 Volkswagen Bug. This is in the early ‘80s. I've always considered myself a journalist and I've worked in the magazine industry for many years, thousands of assignments over the last almost forty years. But yeah, I am a journalist, among other things.

Alex: We see you in the photo lab in the doc developing actual film. Do you shoot digital as well, or are you a film purist?

Dan Winters: For many years, I shot on 4 x 5, which is a large format film, and digital never came close to it for a very long time. And especially, the dynamics of a large format negative. When I saw digital starting to get into the quality of that realm, I had no problem switching over. I think digital is an incredible tool. It's way better than film now, in my opinion. It's completely surpassed film in terms of clean, high-resolution, high-dynamic images. I just had an exhibition in Dubai, it opened a week and a half ago, and I went for the opening. Seeing the capability on the wall of the technology that we use on very large 4ft x 8ft prints and the intense resolution that we're capable of achieving now is what's important. I don't necessarily get caught up in the process too much. Now, having said that, I still do like to shoot things on film. I did a portrait of my wife recently on film. I don't have an opinion one way or another. I don't think you're doing anyone a service by shooting on film for the sake of shooting on film.

Alex: For readers who may be interested in photography, what kind of cameras do you frequently use?

Dan Winters: I usually use medium-format digital mirrorless cameras. I use Fuji's, Fuji 100-megapixel camera is kind of my regular camera now that I use for almost everything. I have another Fuji 50-megapixel camera that I carry in my bag. Prior to that, I was using Fuji x100s, which are nice little magic boxes that make wonderfully beautiful files and are like a little throwback to film. It feels very much like I'm shooting with a film camera, but over time it's evolved. My first professional camera was a 1973 Canon F1, and I shot Canon for years and still do. My 35 platform stuff's all Canon. But I like the dynamics of the medium format. It's almost like having a 4 x 5 in your bag, which is kind of amazing that we've gotten to that point. And I like shooting on my iPhone, to be honest. I have a 15, and I shoot on raw, and those files are absolutely beautiful. And for certain things, I don't want anything else. It's a beautiful little tool, it's very unobtrusive, and people aren't threatened by it at all. It's a very normal thing, shooting with an iPhone. I'm trying to get one up in space because I know the astronauts. It's very intuitive, and everybody has one, so if you're talking about astronauts documenting a mission, shooting with the iPhone is not a production. There's a great quote that the best camera in the world is the one you have with you. There's a lot of truth to that.

Alex: Mobile lighting seems to have evolved a lot, too. Ring lights and portable LEDs are pretty common now. Are there any travel-friendly lighting additions you recommend for anyone interested in enhancing their photography?

Dan Winters: Yeah. In Dhaka, we're using a strobe. The thing about strobe is that you can overpower the sunlight so that your strobe source can be your key light. If you're traveling with a continuous source in sunlight, you're going to need a big continuous source to do that. That was Grant Flanigan, who was holding that strobe in Dhaka. I don't normally work that way. Usually, it's much more buttoned up, all the lights are on stands, and everything's very organized. I found shooting in Dhaka at the shipyards that having the ability to work very fluidly, we took stands, we took everything we needed, but I ended up having him hold probably 90% of the shots we did because it allowed us to shoot something quickly, pivot, see something else, jump on that. But as far as things that people could use, there are so many incredible LED light sources that are battery-powered that are actually getting really powerful. So, under certain conditions, if you move the subject into shade, even with an iPhone, it looks amazing. I've shot stuff on iPhone before where we were meant to shoot on a large format Arriflex. We're shooting film or motion, and we shifted to iPhone. We had a full grip and lighting truck and full crew and we just handled it like we were shooting with a motion picture camera with the iPhone. It looked unbelievable. We were lighting it fully, just taking the time, applying the care to craft an image. There's a Brecht quote from the ‘20s. Brech felt like film was a very elitist art form. It was so expensive, it was very difficult for the common man to access it, and he said, "Film will only be a true art form when it's as accessible as pencil and paper." And I feel like I’ve got a movie studio in my pocket, which is kind of an incredible thing. An incredible time. What it comes down to is storytelling. What story do we want to tell with that tool? That is the main piece.

Some incredible wisdom from a phenomenal photographer. Visit to see more of his incredible work, and follow his Instagram – @DanWintersPhoto – for highlights from his adventures. Dan’s episode of Photographer will air on Monday, March 25th, at 8/7c on Nat Geo, but you can stream it early right now on Disney+ and Hulu.

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Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).