How Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi Moved from Movies like ‘Free Solo’ and ‘Nyad’ to Non-Fiction Series ‘Photographer’

Oscar-winning director-producers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth (Chai) Vasarhelyi consistently deliver stunning visuals and compelling documentary content. And following such breakout films as “Meru,” Oscar- and Emmy-winning “Free Solo,” Emmy-winning “The Rescue,” and “Wild Life,” which took advantage of pro climber-cinematographer-NatGeo photographer Chin’s 20 years of athletic cinema and Vasarhelyi’s relentless producer drive for perfection, they moved into feature directing with long-distance swimming drama “Nyad,” which scored Oscar nominations for stars Annette Bening and Jodie Foster.

Over the years, the filmmakers have established their filmmaking prowess, combining immersive cinema verité visuals with deeply felt personal drama. That is on full display in their latest collaboration with NatGeo, the series “Photographer,” for which the duo matched six of the world’s most renowned shooters with veteran directors Marshall Curry, Kristi Jacobson, and Sam Pollard, plus Sundance alumnae Crystal Kayiza and Rita Baghdadi, and set them loose to return with bespoke one-hour portraits of these artists at work.

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The executive producers directed the pilot episode about NatGeo eco-warrior ocean photographers and life partners Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen, who show us the undersea beauty of the Bahamas, including a pair of friendly whales.

The photographers run the gamut, from Australian storm chaser Krystle Wright, whose face lights up with grinning excitement the closer she gets to a massive tornado, to taciturn NatGeo explorer Dan Winters, who visits a decrepit Bangladesh shipyard and documents its grimy workers. As he grows older, the hard-driving photographer is trying to repair his relationship with his son, who he did not spend enough time with growing up.

The directors combine footage of the most recent photo project at hand with career-spanning archives and interviews. Several subjects like Mittermeier and Nicklen, Wright, and Winters are NatGeo photographers, also including California’s Anand Varma, who specializes in technological problem-solving and the macro-photography of insects. In his episode we track his arduous but ultimately successful attempts to photograph a chicken embryo in an egg maturing and hatching into a chick. It’s astonishing.

Cristina Mittermeier takes photographs of a pilot whale. (National Geographic)
Cristina Mittermeier takes photographs of a pilot whaleNational Geographic

The series was a dream that Chin and Vasarhelyi had wanted to pursue ever since Vasarhelyi attended (with Chin) her first NatGeo Photographers Summit. “They’re our heroes,” said Vasarhelyi. “We’ve wanted to make a film with Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier for a long time. And naturally photographers are reluctant because they’re used to being behind the camera rather than in front. NatGeo understood it when we said, ‘Look at these amazing characters.'”

It didn’t hurt that NatGeo was promoting their own all-stars. “Paul has so much empathy for the wildlife,” said Vasarhelyi. “He has so much love and empathy for these animals. And he often says, ‘I’m way more comfortable around animals. They’re way more predictable than humans.'”

They’re not all NatGeo photographers. “But they are all iconic photographers,” said Vasarhelyi. “It’s a wide breadth of photography that is being showcased.” One who was not is Campbell Addy, a hugely successful British-Ghanaian fashion photographer, who as he mounts his first photo exhibition, takes us behind the scenes to reveal his anxiety and stress. “He’s also an artist. He is also gay, and believes in religion. He’s a complicated and charismatic photographer, who’s the photographer of choice of all the prominent Black artists and musicians.”

The producers had fun working with their favorite documentary friends. “It was like setting everyone up on blind dates,” said Vasarhelyi. “Like Marshall Curry with Anand Varma. They’re made to be paired.” After setting up their matched pairs, the filmmakers mostly troubleshooted when necessary with their showrunner Pagan Harleman, who also directed an episode. “We’re there to fight the battles with them, if they wanted to advocate for more resources or access. We’d give lots of notes.”

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

Chin has known many of these photographers for a long time, as colleagues. “Paul and Christina, I’ve known for over 15 years,” he said. “I’ve known Krystle for more than 10 years. And she’s someone I admired because of her tenacity and grit and individualism. And she has a vision for her work. She’s this woman in a male-dominated world of adventure photography. Her approach is so unique. Her point of view and perspective is what this series is about. It’s about bringing people into a new world and seeing it through a different lens. And she does it all. She shoots surfing, she gets underwater, she’s climbing, she’s chasing tornadoes.”

The filmmakers wanted to take the viewer beyond the photos. “A big part of the motivation, too, is understanding what goes on behind these iconic images,” said Vasarhelyi. “And these incredible people who take extraordinary risk and sacrifice, but have this curiosity for the world.”

Chin understands what it takes to rise to success in competitive photography while juggling art and commerce. “I sold T-shirts in my car to finance my first expedition,” he said. “And I wasn’t spending much because I lived in a car.”

“Yeah, he lived in a car for seven years,” said Vasarhelyi.

In the back of his car, Chin kept a couple of milk crates with hanging slide transparency sheets and a tiny light table. “They were getting covered in dust,” he said. “At the time, it wasn’t about money. It’s about making images. At the heart of it, these photographers are compelled to share their point of view because they have to be so passionate about their subjects and about photography, but yet they come from such different backgrounds and unique upbringings and those stories allow us to show the intention behind the work. We hope people don’t take for granted these iconic images. Like every one of these images has a story behind it.”

Director Crystal Kayiza speaks with Photographer Campbell Addy. (National Geographic/Elena Gaby)
Co-director Crystal Kayiza speaks with photographer Campbell AddyNational Geographic/Elena Gaby

For his part, Chin published his first NatGeo Magazine images in 2003, “on an expedition where we were crossing the Chanthang Plateau in Tibet,” he said. “And I was with three of my heroes, Conrad Anker, Rick Ridgeway, and Galen Rowell, one of the great adventure photographers of our time. He invented participatory adventure photography where he was shooting from the inside out. And he passed right after that expedition.” Chin’s first two-page spread in the magazine was an image that he took of Rowell on that expedition. “It was literally the passing of the torch to me and I’ve been part of the National Geographic family since.”

Next up: The duo are directing a NatGeo documentary with Natalie Hewit on the 2022 discovery of The Endurance and the infamous 1914 Ernest Shackleton expedition. They couldn’t visit the ship when it was discovered because they were in post-production on “Nyad.” They sent a crew. “We use that story as the spine for telling the Shackleton adventure again,” said Chin, “which is one of the greatest survival stories.”

As they are settle into their Little Monsters production offices in New York, and enjoy their success, they are trying to support rising filmmakers who are experiencing a big contraction in the industry. “Everyone is feeling it,” said Vasarhelyi. “I’m personally quite concerned about the $1 million doc, I’m concerned about the ‘Cutie and the Boxers’ that would never get made anymore. We’re trying to support everything we can. One of the motivations behind ‘Photographer’ was there are a lot of great filmmakers. We’re going to open up our theater for young filmmakers to come in and screen their films.”

“Photographer” premiered Monday, March 18 on National Geographic, and is now available to stream on Disney+ & Hulu.

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