E. Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin

E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have produced a raft of projects for National Geographic in the five years since Free Solo landed them an Oscar win for best documentary. At Little Monster Films, the filmmakers—creative collaborators and life partners—have been bringing their unique lens to a wide array of topics, from a Northern Thailand cave rescue expedition in The Rescue to SpaceX and NASA’s first joint spaceflight in Return to Space. In National Geographic’s Photographer (also streaming on Disney+ and Hulu), Chin and Vasarhelyi profile several acclaimed photographers—Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen, Dan Winters, Campbell Addy, Krystle Wright, Muhammed Muheisen and Anand Varma—exploring the art of their craft with in-depth interviews, archive footage and more. Vasarhelyi and Chin talk to World Screen about the new six-part series.

WS: Tell us about how Photographer for National Geographic came about.
CHIN: This is the series we have been talking about, dreaming about, for years. I’m a National Geographic photographer. I’ve always been extremely inspired by my peer group, by any of the photographers who are able to make it in this world as photographers, because I know what it takes. We wanted to explore the passion, obsession, craft, creativity and vision it takes to make it as a photographer. We knew we had access to the best of the best image makers. That is something we wanted to leverage. There are all these incredible stories behind these images. Every image is a story. But the stories behind the images are fascinating and unique. People often take what goes into these images for granted. Chai has pointed out many times that more photographs have been taken in the last two years than in the history of photography. Everybody has a phone. But to make an iconic image, to get into these places and put yourself in these situations to capture some of the most iconic images in the world and images that can change the world, requires so much. That’s what we wanted to bring to life. You have to be so passionate about your subjects. You make so much sacrifice and [take physical, mental and emotional] risks to get to these places and capture these images. And you have to obsess. We’re pulling back the curtain and letting people see what it takes to do it, but also getting to know these photographers. We have these incredible photographers who also have their own stories. Learning how they got to where they are and why photography has been their outlet in life is something we are fascinated by.

WS: You’re getting such great insights from these photographers. What’s been the approach to those interviews?
VASARHELYI: We are really lucky that we love what we do. It’s also really fun to be in your 40s and have worked at something for over 20 years. There’s a real comfort level in the process for us. You’re a warm light. You are interested and engaged. If we’re having a good time and enjoying the conversation, our participants are too.
CHIN: It’s also a lot about trust. You have to establish and build a lot of trust. Some of the films we work on take years to make, and you build that trust. In some people, it takes a while to peel the onion and get through all the layers. The beauty of these longitudinal projects that we work on is you get that time to go deeper. That’s the type of work that we love to do and appreciate. It’s also the work that we appreciate in the directors that we were able to bring on to this project. This project was kind of an experiment. We took some of the greatest, [most] iconic photographers and paired them with the greatest nonfiction directors that we could find. We really trusted them to see what they could come up with.
VASARHELYI: It’s a testament to Nat Geo’s vision. They allowed us and the filmmakers the freedom to make these bespoke films that honor the photographers’ visions. Photographer showcases such a diverse group of individuals and types of photography. It was a real pleasure to have the space and creative resources to honor these photographers.
CHIN: It’s not a formulaic approach. Like Chai said, we wanted to make them bespoke. Each one had to speak to the creativity, vision and passion of each of the photographers. That’s what makes this series really special.

WS: Tell us about your relationship with National Geographic and the creative freedom you’ve found to tell the stories you want to tell.
VASARHELYI: We’re really lucky to have them as partners. Especially for me as a female filmmaker, it’s been a real privilege to be able to work under Courteney Monroe [president of National Geographic Global Networks] and Carolyn Bernstein [executive VP of global scripted content and documentary films]. In four years, we have made seven films with Nat Geo. It’s a really nurturing and empowering relationship.
CHIN: It’s part of their mission to expand people’s understanding of the human experience. That’s a well we go back to often. It’s bringing to light stories that people don’t always get to see or hear about.