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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, June 18, 2024
HomeNewsArchivesPulitzer Prize Winner Damon Winter Returns to V.I.

Pulitzer Prize Winner Damon Winter Returns to V.I.

Damon Winter at Antilles.On the morning of November 5, 2008, Damon Winter slept late.

"Probably until noon," says the New York Times photographer.

He had just completed a herculean task – following presidential candidate Barak Obama on every step of the 2008 campaign trail. That work won him the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. The Pulitzer committee cited "his memorable array of pictures deftly capturing multiple facets of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign."

Speaking Thursday at the Prior-Jollek Hall on the Antilles campus, Winter, who grew up on St. Thomas and graduated from All Saints Cathedral School in 1993, greeted his audience.

"I never imagined I’d be standing here. I’m so happy to be home, talking to you guys," said Winter, with a big, warm smile. "It’s great. I love doing what I do. I have the best job in the world. One day I’m in Pittsburgh at the world summit riots, and the next I’m off to Brazil to document the effected of deforestation on the Amazon River basin people."

"With Obama," Winter said, "much of the story was about the excitement around him wherever he went. Over the course of the campaign, I wanted to create a complete photo story, so that the viewer could see what I saw."

Winter seems to have an air of wonder about the rewards his amazing talent have brought him. After speaking for a few minutes, Winter stepped from the stage and let his photographs do the talking. He shared images of faces – tearful, ecstatic, quiet, intense connections, such as one woman gazing spellbound from a big red O in an Obama sign from an auditorium.

He presented photographs from other assignments – from Ted Kennedy’s funeral to urban New York in "Neighbors," a NYT Lens series of double exposures on eight-by-ten sheets of film, two exposures on a single sheet of urban Brooklyn, where he now lives, and Manhattan.

The Pulitzer submission included a variety of photos: A child gazing out of the sun on the shoulders of his father as thousands descend on Jena, La., for the trial of the "Jenna Six"; U2 looking somber before the band’s 2007 world tour; the iconic profile of Obama in the rain, clad in leather jacket, no umbrella, at a rally at Widener University in Chester, Pa, the week before the election.

"He didn’t want somebody holding an umbrella over him," Winter said. "He gave one of this longest and most passionate speeches to an audience who had waited in the rain for hours."

One of his responsibilities, Winter says in an interview this weekend, "was to bring people to a place they don’t get to see, in a much more intimate view than TV."

One of those shots, which he’d presented at his show, is a grinning Obama, looking down at a ticket agent through the dusty window of a ticket booth at a county fair in Texas.

"The booth had four windows," he says, "so I just reached into one with my camera, with my legs sticking out." He laughs, "That would have made a good shot, itself."

Winter earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Columbia University and worked for Newsweek, Magnum Photos and several newspapers, most recently the Los Angeles Times, before joining the New York Times in 2007.

And, for all that, the 34-year old Pulitzer winner, didn’t start out to be a photographer. He was studying environmental science at Columbia when, in his junior year in the late ’90s, his mother gave him a camera.

"I’d wanted some little point-and-shoot thing to take pictures of my friends," he says, "but she gave me a good camera, a Canon 35-millimeter. It was better than I had expected, and I kind of fell in love with it."

Back to Nov. 5, 2008. "People ask me if I’d had any idea of who’d win," he says. "It’s really hard to see what the whole nation is feeling when you’re so focused on what you’re covering. You’re in a bubble. I had no perspective."

A typical day, Winter says, would produce about 1,700 single photos, after 14 hours, four flights, six buses, five cities. Then he had to decide which photos to submit to his editors. Rising at 5 a.m. and falling into bed around midnight in yet another hotel.

"There was so much pressure I felt my heart would pump out of my shirt at any moment," he says. As a means of mellowing himself out, he played tunes from singer Cat Power, which he also used as an effective backdrop for his Antilles presentation.

"It’s an unbelievable competitive environment, always jostling for position. I’d take 80 to 100 shots a day, maybe 20-40 on a light day," he says. "I don’t know if my lack of experience really aided me, as some have said, or not. It’s easy to get jaded. They told me to pay attention to the environment. My guidelines were 35 percent of the candidate and 65 percent of everything else."

They instructed him well.

He took more than 90,000 images of the campaign,

"At some point," he says, "you get the photo of the day – the photo you’re really happy with."

For the Pulitzer, the photos have to have been published.

"There’s always a few that rise to the top quickly," he says.

It was a hard process getting down to 20. "At some point, I got down to 40, and gave them to my editor, while I was happily occupied doing other things."

After his presentation at Antilles, someone in the audience asked Winter if Obama knew who he was.

"I suppose he must have," Winter replied. "Once at a rally near the end of the campaign, he answered an audience question with ‘why don’t you ask the New York Times guy, he’s standing right here.’ "

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