Shea Winter “Reinvests” in Himself while Quarantining in the UAE

Jul 30, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

One of the industries that’s really taken a beating during the coronavirus pandemic is tourism. The lack of travel has affected people in every part of the field, from airline employees to folks like Shea Winter, who was the head of photography for a souvenir imaging company based in Dubai that had to shut down because of COVID. Not one to just sit around and wait for something to happen, Shea has spent the last few months overhauling his website and portfolio as well as creating some stunning imagery of the artifacts he’s collected over the years.

Our interview with Shea about his staying active during quarantine has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: How long after you were let go did you start taking these photos? 

A: My last day of work was on March 11; however, a complete lockdown was imposed in the United Arab Emirates from March 15 until May 1. All non-essential stores and businesses in Dubai were closed and no one could leave their home without applying for a police permit.

Shea Winter During COVID an egg

So, while the idea had been in the back of my mind for a few months to begin photographing all of the souvenirs I’ve collected, I wasn’t able to actually go out of my house and purchase the required equipment (Foldio3, the small product photography studio kit) until after the lockdown was lifted and some non-essential businesses began operating again.  

Q: What has it felt like, from an emotional standpoint, to take these photos?

A: Photographing each memento brings back incredibly fond memories. It’s not to say that one item can encapsulate all of my emotions about a place, but it makes it possible to relive many of the feelings connected with that time and journey. For example, I visited India 12 times in the past 3 years, so much that my original passport ran out of pages and my friends nicknamed me Punjabi Gora.  

Shea Winter During COVID elephants from India

When photographing the hand carved elephants, I can’t help but feel that heightened sense of awareness you have when you first land in a new country, especially in a city like Mumbai where the population is so large and the city so dense that you’re on extra alert to every sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.  

Q: What is your favorite artifact and why?

A: This seems like a trick question to me, because if my wife asks me what my favorite item is, shot, or story the answer will always be the mother of pearl divider from Seoul, as she’s South Korean. And it does hold a very special place for me!

Shea Winter During COVID Korean divider

But actually, my favorite item is a large ten-pound rock found while hiking in the Al Faya Mountains near Mleiha Desert in Sharjah, UAE. Somehow the rock has been split perfectly to form the shape of a book end, the inside of which resembles the color and look of the inner bark of a tree.  

Shea Winter During COVID Al Faya Mountains

It’s just a magnificent piece of the earth to hold and admire, especially because the area where it was found has a historical significance to the United Arab Emirates. The mountain caves in the area were first inhabited by humans as far back as the Paleolithic period, roughly 130,000 years ago.  

Q: What is your favorite shot and why?

A: My favorite shot might be of the Royal Selangor cup, which the company would say was “born and bred in pewter dust.” 

Shea Winter During COVID Royal Selangor

Royal Selangor (originally Selangor Pewter) was a family owned company which started in Kuala Lumpur in the 1930s making low cost tin products but today has grown to a massive brand globally. The photo I shot of the ornamental cup made with gold feels to me like a legitimate high-end product shot, almost as if I could have been assigned to shoot it. In that respect, it may be my favorite and with a little luck I’ll figure out a way to use the image to get my portfolio in front of an art director at the company.  

Q: What other things have you been doing to stay mentally/technically sharp?

A: Simply put, I’m using this time in isolation to reinvest in myself as a photographer.  That means redesigning my website and blog, creating updated marketing material and print portfolios, placing Google ads, building a database of potential clients, writing grants & proposals, etc. I meticulously give myself between 2-4 hours of photography related work to be accomplished daily just to make sure I’m staying focused. And when I can’t do anything in the house, I find new ways to build my portfolio under strict social distancing guidelines.

Shea Winter During COVID truck in the sand

For example, I recently went out into the desert with a friend’s truck to shoot some photographs I could use in an automobile photography campaign. Finding ways to create imagery without people is key at this time.  

Q: Not that any of us know the answer to this question, but what’s next for you?

A: This project is at least at this moment, purely personal. Growing up, I would occasionally be given items from my grandmother or grandfather and I never had very much information about the history of such hand downs. So, I want to make sure that everything I’ve been collecting over the course of my life has a brief history and story behind it.  

Shea Winter During COVID ancient dice

My hope is that in the future when these items are passed on to my children or grandchildren, they will have some understanding of what each item is, where it came from and when and how it was acquired. But maybe I have a future in some still life or product photography. Inshallah (God willing), as they say in Arabic.

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