Once, on an assignment for the Dallas Morning News, photojournalist Damon Winter was on a drive-along with city policemen. “I was pretty new at the paper and this cop was telling me stories,” he remembers. “He said he came onto a murder scene, a gang thing, and the victim was laying there on the ground. The cop laughs a little and says, ‘There were brains all over the sidewalk and the guy didn’t even spill his beer!’ That cop had seen much go down so often that he could actually laugh about a murder.” Another time, Winter was in a hospital in war-ravaged Kabul, Afghanistan. He was wandering down a corridor looking for his next shot when he happened upon a boy whose fingers had been damaged in a meat grinder. The doctor was preparing to inject anesthetic from a huge syringe before amputating the fingers. The boy’s employer is standing right behind him, in an avuncular embrace. “I kind of lost it, and the doctor could see it on my face,” Winter says. “So the doctor looks at me and laughs, saying, ‘It’s just two fingers!’”
And more recently, for the Los Angeles Times, staff photographer Winter had a nice talk with actor John Travolta. “He actually asked me about my technique and why I had thought to shoot him this particular way,” Winter says. “He ended up saying, ‘It’s so nice that you think about your subject.’ Unfortunately, sometimes I stay up all night thinking about how I’ll approach something.” Winter, who turned 30 Christmas Eve, has seen the world through a fascinating prism, witnessing sides of humanity and pockets of the globe most of us only read about. And in the process, the photographer has earned a reputation of possessing a unique work style greatly admired by peers and editors.
His first photo editor, Ken Geiger, formerly of the Dallas Morning News, says, “Damon has such range. You can give him an illustrative assignment and he turns it into images beyond your imagination. He uses initiative to go well beyond, going the extra mile. Football is huge in Texas and we’d have these 80-page special sections. Damon was shooting the covers of the different sections and he got this idea to shoot Kelan Luker with this huge fire blower. He talked to the fire department about a month in advance. The shot has this huge flame with unbelievable light. It’s the kind of stuff you don’t expect from a newspaper photographer.” Winter remembers, “The theme was heat. The headline said something about burnings.”
And he brings that same talent and drive to portraiture. Los Angeles Times photo editor Colin Crawford, says, Damon has a way of bringing out a bit of the person’s soul. There’s a sense of the person and a look inside him.” This is more incredible considering how publicists treat photojournalists. In the case of celebrities, a newspaper shoot is usually scheduled after a “real” shoot. Crawford says, “We recently had a publicist tell us, ‘You’ll have fifteen minutes to shoot. Normally, we would only give you five.’ It’s amazing. Their celebrity client will get so much more exposure being in the Los Angeles Times than in any magazine, but they give us no time.”
In this world, there is no entourage of stylists—wardrobe, hair, makeup or otherwise. Forget about an assistant. Or two. Don’t wait for someone else to check the lighting. And if there are advance phone calls and plans to be made, plan on doing them yourself. It’s the photojournalist and the subject—and that’s it.
For Winter and his colleagues, that’s the definition of a perfect calling. These are adrenaline-driven investigative artists who are pack rats and camels, carrying all they need—cameras, lenses, scribbled notes, a laptop, multiple cell phones, light meters, brown-bag lunches—on their backs, in search of the seminal photo to illustrate their assignment. And all the while, their best efforts will be published on newspaper raglan—washed-out pulp laid with slick ink that comes off on your fingers. As David Letterman once said, “This weekend, I was reading the New York Times—or, wait a minute, maybe I was changing my oil.”
It’s a stark contrast to the commercial world, although the two obviously share common traits—like the love of photography. Winter admires many of the photographers he’s seen in the pages of design magazines and recently an art photographer called Winter’s editor, Crawford, to compliment his portraiture work for a story on a public school teacher. But when Winter muses on the differences between the two disciplines, it’s clear he prefers the lone ranger aspects of the news side. “I end up doing everything, from start to finish, art direction, lighting, all of it.” One wonders if he would be able to give up artistic or technical control.
Because a photojournalist’s subject is life itself, the range of assignments is head spinning, and clearly exciting. “I see this job as something I’m always learning. Working at a major daily paper you have all the resources you need,” he says. “I wanted to learn how to use my 4 X 5 better, so I started learning about it on the job. I’ll take on a project with a format I’ve never used and add that to the list of possible ways I can do it next time.”
Winter, who was raised in New York and moved to the Virgin Islands when he was six, believes he came to photojournalism a bit late. “I hadn’t even picked up a camera by midway through college,” he says. “I just wanted a point-and-shoot so I could take pictures of my friends, but my mom actually got me a pretty decent Canon. Soon, I was taking pictures with no film just so I could get used to the feel.” Winter was a junior at Columbia University in New York at the time, working toward a degree in environmental science. He began submitting photos to the school paper, the Columbia Daily Spectator, and by senior year, only months later, he was named photo editor and chief photographer of the school daily.
During college, Winter also interned at Magnum Photo, which represents photographers. Its roster is impressive, spiked with many celebrities. “I would see the photographers come and go, and meeting all these people, like Elliott Erwitt, was amazing,” he remembers. He took classes at Eddie Adams Workshop, as well. “This was my turning point,” he says. “A teacher at the workshop saw that I had a documentary feel. That’s when I knew I wanted to pursue photojournalism. I spent the next year looking for photo internships.” After graduating, he landed at Newsweek, where he would serve as intern during the week and on the weekends he submitted photos to The Associated Press. His next internships were at The Ventura County Star in Central California and The Indianapolis Star.
Winter then turned down a full-time staff position to travel the world for seven months. Shooting pictures wherever he went, he traveled through Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South Asia. In 1999, he took a staff position at the Dallas Morning News, then joined the Los Angeles Times in 2004. Along the way, Winter has won awards including the Society of News Design, Pictures of the Year, NPPA Best of Photo Journalism, and earned the NPPA Region 8 Photographer of the Year designation in 2002. He was nominated for two Pulitzer Prize awards while at the Dallas Morning News.
It seems apropos that Winter’s father is a scientist and his mother is an artist. The photographer has a mental arsenal crammed with tools from both disciplines. In his Los Angeles old-Hollywood style apartment, spacious front rooms and a kitchen lead back to a hallway with several rooms—one of which he’s converted into a kind of lab. He’s got a collection of found gadgets and pieces of things and old frames that he uses to make things. Often, he will invent a new type of lens or camera housing to execute a shot.
Dallas freelance photographer Matt Rourke says, “He’s got a grasp of the technical most people don’t have. He has the patience to build his own lenses. There was a series he did with a lens he made from an old loupe and got really great portraits. He was doing a series on kayaking and he made his own camera housing so the camera would face the paddler. Last time we talked he was trying to make a pinhole camera. He’s worked with Polaroid transfers.” He adds, “The first thing you notice about Damon’s work is he always finds the good light. He’s right there at the perfect time of day. If he goes before the perfect time, he’ll sit and wait for it.”
Jayne Winter is amazed by what’s happened since the day she casually bought her son a camera for college. “I never expected this,” she says. “He astounds me.” ca