April 15, 2006 – A young man who grew up on St. Thomas has this month won one of journalism's most prestigious awards.
Damon Winter, who lived on the island from age 6 until he graduated from All Saints Cathedral School in 1993, has won the 2005 Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Award for photojournalism. The awards honor the best in print, Web and electronic journalism, and journalism education.
Winter, a photographer for the Los Angeles Times, will receive $10,000 and a trophy at a black tie dinner at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on April 21.
It's a safe bet that no one at the event will be more beside herself than Damon's mother, Jayne Winter.
"I'm thrilled," the senior Winter said Saturday. "Sometimes I wonder if I am too biased in Damon's favor," she said, "but I simply am."
She has ample reason to feel that way. Not only has Winter received the coveted Scripps award, he is a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize in Feature Photography.
"Egad," said Jayne Winter, advertising director for A.H. Riise Stores. "The Pulitzer decision is only three days away. I'm on pins and needles."
The Scripps Howard news release said in part, "From the searing cold of Alaska to the heat of an L.A. fashion show, Winter is equally at ease behind his camera, which is both a window and a mirror. His eyes gaze into the eyes of his subjects, where he finds their story."
Winter said he was "completely shocked" when he was asked to submit his work for the Scripps Howard award.
"I hadn't thought about it. My editors asked me to get together a body of work. I came to them and told them it was a waste of time, I didn't have enough material. They looked through the work and they picked up stuff I hadn't picked out."
And, for all that, the 31-year-old didn't even start out to be a photographer, his mother said.
"It's crazy," she said. "I gave him a camera in his junior year, and he just took off. He seemed right away to have an aptitude for it."
Winter was an environmental science major at Columbia University in New York, well into his third year, in the late '90s. When his mother gave him the camera for Christmas, he began to look at life in a new way, a way which he has documented on film ever since.
Damon Winter said, "I'd wanted some little point-and-shoot thing to take pictures of my friends, something I could control, 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. Because I was home, I started taking pictures here and on St. John.
After Winter returned to school, he submitted photos to the school paper, the Columbia Daily Spectator, and in his senior year he was named the paper's photo editor and chief photographer, and he has never looked back.
His career didn't happen overnight. "There was plenty of learning involved," he said. He took classes at the Eddie Adams Workshop in New York where he discovered a feel for documentary film.
After that he had an internship at Newsweek magazine, and began working as a stringer for Associated Press.
He turned down permanent jobs to travel the world for about a year, then in 1999, taking a permanent post at Dallas Morning News, which he left for his current job in Los Angeles.
"I was in Dallas for about four years," he said, "and I'd gotten everything from the city. I was ready for a change. It was a great move to L.A. The city is really fascinating; there's plenty of stuff to keep me busy."
However, last year things took a dramatic change. Winter was abruptly dispatched from the warmth of celebrity-ridden Southern California to a bleak neverland not far from the Arctic Circle.
Accompanied by a reporter, Winter's editors assigned him to photograph the people of the villages of St. Michael and Stebbins, people whose lives had been tragically altered years ago by a lay Catholic missionary.
It is this story that is being considered for the Pulitzer.
His editor, Patt Morrison, described Winter's work: "His images let readers in on a harrowing secret, one that had poisoned the soul of an Eskimo village for 30 years. His camera served as a mirror. His subjects looked into it, saw themselves reflected and were moved to share their stories and their sorrows."
"To earn the trust of the people," Morrison said, "Winter spent a solid week before he so much as lifted his camera."
Winter said those friendships he made are enduring. "One couple in particular I stay in touch with. They are really sweet, Elsie and Tommy, we talk every few weeks. They were really kind to me."
About the potential Pulitzer, Winter said, "I try not to think about it too much. It slips into my head, but I get a little too nervous."
Pulitzer winners will be announced April 17.
A selection of Winter's work can be viewed at www.damonwinter.com.
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