Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin Play Matchmakers With Nat Geo Series Pairing Doc Filmmakers With Photographers

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin Play Matchmakers With Nat Geo Series Pairing Doc Filmmakers With Photographers

After making their first narrative feature “Nyad,” which debuted last year and earned Oscar nominations for the film’s stars Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, Academy Award winning directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Free Solo”) are returning to their documentary roots with “Photographer.”

The six-part National Geographic docuseries features seven photographers —  Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen, Dan Winters, Campbell Addy, Krystle Wright, Muhammed Muheisen, and Anand Varma. Vérité footage of each subject’s current mission is interwoven with interviews and archival footage to demonstrate how each photographer approaches their work, the intention behind that work, their process, and how they each discover, see and experience the world.

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To bring each of the National Geographic photographers’ stories to life, showrunners Chin and Vasarhelyi hired six veteran documentary filmmakers: Marshall Curry (“Racing Dreams”), Crystal Kayiza (“Rest Stop”), Sam Pollard (“MLK/FBI”), Kristi Jacobson (“Solitary”) Rita Baghdadi (“Sirens”) and Pagan Harleman (“The Trade”), who was also served as the series’ showrunner/executive producer.

“We were really trying to pair world class documentary filmmakers with world class photographers and see what would happen,” says Chin. “We gave the filmmakers some space to look at which photographers would resonate or which stories resonated with them the most. But in a lot of ways we thought that intersecting these two great creatives together from the filmmaking side and from the photography side would be a really cool experiment.”

Chin and Vasarhelyi directed the series’ first episode about acclaimed ocean photographers and partners Nicklen and Mittermeier. The episode demonstrates how the photog duo aims to raise awareness through their art and nonprofit organization, SeaLegacy. Chin and Vasarhelyi follow Nicklen and Mittermeier as they travel by boat to the Bahamas to take on oil drilling and document the recently discovered seagrass beds there.

“We had always dreamt of trying to make a film with Paul and Christina,” says Vasarhelyi. “They are icons and heroes of ours as well as dear friends. The way they compliment each other, their individually unique visions, how they’ve built this world and this activism together, and how they bring purpose to their photography was really meaningful to both Jimmy and myself.”

In the series’ second episode,  the focus is on Varma’s devotion to developing innovative techniques to create intimate, dramatic and surprising images of nature. Curry chose to follow Varma due the photographer’s decision to look away “from the obvious thing.”

“I love pictures of elephants, war footage and movie stars and that charismatic stuff as much as the next person,” says Curry. “But there’s something about that worldview of somebody who just says, ‘That’s not what I’m focusing on. I’m going to focus on a frog.’ I loved that about Anand — his, ‘Hey, there’s something amazing here if you will just sit quietly with me and look at this tidal pool.’ It’s something you would normally just walk right past because it’s not the big ocean. It’s not the blue whale. Instead it’s like a little tongue sticking up out of a barnacle in a tidal pool. That was beautiful and extraordinary and it makes you feel things.”

In the series’ fifth episode, Jacobson chronicles Wright, who after a decade of traveling the world and shooting extreme sports stunts, experiences an unexpected medical emergency that forces her to slow down and reevaluate her life. Jacobson captures Wright as she re-enters the industry to chase tornados in the American southwest and create images in Moab, Utah. Viewers witness Wright’s struggle to balance her ambition to create innovative works with her newly discovered desire to nurture herself and have a true home.

Nat Geo “sent me some information about Krystal, and then when we got into the Zoom meeting I was like, ‘Do you really want me to tell her story?,’” Jacobson recalls. “This isn’t what I do in terms of the extreme sports piece of it. That conversation was the beginning of this incredible journey and collaboration in which they said to me, ‘We want you to bring who you are and what matters to you, and how you tell stories to this series. Specifically this woman Krystal rather than someone who is experienced in filming the Arctic or climbing and extreme adventure environments.’ I hadn’t really thought of it that way.”

Chin and Vasarhelyi contacted Jacobson two years ago about directing the episode. The idea behind the docuseries immediately interested her.

“Art is messy, but I think that we all share, both the photographers and the filmmakers, a belief in its power,” says Jacobson. “Its power to affect real change whether that is how you are defining yourself or being your authentic self and showing people the way.”

In an age where anyone can take a picture or film whatever they want on their phones, “Photographer” was made in part to remind people what photography can really be.

With this series, “we were really trying to touch on and bring to life just how many different forms photography can take on,” says Vasarhelyi. “We wanted to show the breadth and diversity of photography and of photographers.”

The first two episodes of “Photographer” premieres March 18 on National Geographic and is available to stream on March 19 on Disney+ and Hulu.

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