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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

NatGeo Photographer: Dan Winters “Life is Once. Forever.” 

NatGeo Photographer: Dan Winters “Life is Once. Forever.”
Kathryn helps Dan adjust his shirt for his interview. (National Geographic/Gene Gallerano)

Widely recognized for his unusual portraiture, scientific photography, illustrations and photojournalistic stories, Dan Winters describes his life as a quest to relive his boyhood experiences. His NatGeo photo editor, Todd James, says Dan is living his childhood obsessions — not that there’s anything wrong with that. He thinks Dan’s obsessive curiosity makes him explore his interests deeply.

Dan sitting at his desk with an old Rolleiflex camera. (National Geographic/David Fausto)

Growing up in a small town in Ventura County, CA, Dan always felt out of place and that his pursuits were outside of his parents understanding. Subscribing to picture magazines and following the space program through Life Magazine inspired him. The 1969 launch of Apollo 11 made Dan realize he wanted to be there in person witnessing such a momentous event rather than be an observer looking at pictures in a magazine. But it wasn’t until he went to college that he realized taking photos could be his life’s calling. The primary way he’d expressed his passions before was through drawing.

Following his dream to shoot for magazines, Dan moved to New York City without a job. His dark room was a sacred place and he was shooting constantly. Once he dropped his book off around town, Dan started getting assignments. But he was awful about all the business details — he hadn’t done taxes for years, he was incredibly behind with invoicing, etc. Then he meets Kathryn, his soon-to-be wife and eventual manager, in Hollywood. She becomes his most honest critic and closest collaborator.

What is it like to have a photographer like Dan for a father? Dan and Kath’s son Dylan feels that his childhood was over photographed. Dan would say Dylan was his muse. Dylan felt like Dan’s art project. They have a great relationship now, but Dylan’s childhood was difficult as it was at the height of Dan’s career, when he was working a lot and away constantly.

And then things got worse. Dan suffered a traumatic brain injury from a serious cycling accident that almost paralyzed him. Soon after, Dan was admitted to a psychiatric facility and diagnosed Bipolar I. Trauma triggers a manic episode, but that hasn’t happened in almost eight years. Interestingly, when Dan experiences the mania it feels good and he can see things vividly. While he’s extremely productive during these episodes, he doesn’t remember any of it when it’s over. And while Dan knows he put his family through it, Kath herself admits that while it can be very difficult, she wouldn’t be with him if she didn’t want to be. She accepts Dan the way he is. So does Dylan.

So what gets a photographer like Dan excited to take a picture? The Chittagong shipyards in Bangladesh. The pictures he saw took his breath away so he decided he wanted to shoot there. Kath tells us Dan’s been talking about Chittagong for at least 15 years. Once Dan gets visually attached to something and his wheels start turning, it’s very hard for him to move on.

A shipyard worker holds a barrel over his head at the Dhaka ship-repair yard. (Photo Credit: Dan Winters)

Dan’s local fixer and translator won’t be able to get him into Chittagong, but there’s a repair yard in Dhaka that could work. The plan had been to shoot ship building and repair, but plans evolve. Now interested in documenting the working class, partly because his father worked as a welder, Dan decides to focus on the people you don’t usually see. He has so much respect for people who aren’t heralded by our society and wants to showcase them.

NASA Shuttle Endeavor passes through the cloud ceiling after launching from Kennedy Space Center. (Photo Credit: Dan Winters)

Dan’s also on a six year project with NASA’s Artemis program and is deeply involved in photographing every aspect. His extreme attention to detail allows him to sketch out when cameras will go off during the lead up to and including the launch. He’s been interested in spaceships since childhood and now he gets to be there in person.

I had a chance to speak exclusively to Dan Winters about about why it was so important for the episode to include perspectives from his wife and his son, his confidence in his work, what goes into taking a great photo and so much more.

All episodes of NatGeo’s Photographer are streaming now on Disney+ and Hulu.

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