National Geographic’s big cat whisperer Steve Winter spills the beans
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC'S BIG CAT WHISPERER STEVE WINTER SPILLS THE BEANS
Steve Winter has been stalked by jaguars in Brazil, charged by a grizzly in Siberia, and trapped in quicksand in the world's largest tiger reserve in Myanmar, all while living out his childhood dream as a photojournalist for National Geographic. He tells us all about the risks and rewards of his career thus far.
What is the single most important piece of non-essential gear for you to have in the field, and why?
In the past, my most important piece of non-essential gear was a satellite phone, and it still is if I am in a remote enough area. Now that our world is blanketed by cell coverage, I get a local cell phone and I call home once or twice a day wherever I am.
What’s your favorite snack to take in the field?
I am now on a Whole Foods honey granola kick - I love it!
Complete this sentence: When I started working with National Geographic, I never thought I would be ....
A wildlife photojournalist. I didn’t photograph an animal until I was 34 years old. Now I photograph big cats!
What is the most breathtaking view you’ve enjoyed while in the field?
Everywhere I work is breathtaking! The night sky is amazing from Wyoming to the Himalayas. Standing in a jungle and just listening to the symphony of the birds and other creatures while working on Yasuni in Ecuador for National Geographic magazine was special. I really love forests and their sounds throughout the world.
What is the most treacherous terrain/environment or unpredictable situation you have encountered?
This happens all the time. Snow leopard terrain is steep and at a high altitude so you have certain challenges. Working with wild animals can be a bit dangerous so you need to work with the local people that know the area and animals. You need to have a very high level of trust in their abilities, as your life is in their hands.
Getting charged at by rhinos was the scariest situation I’ve been in while in the field. Unpredictable animal behavior is the worst. It is impossible to prepare yourself for everything, but you have to try your best.
“By saving the world's top predators, we save huge forests, rivers, wildlife, and ultimately, our planet.” — S.Winter
What is the most important piece of advice for aspiring photographers?
Learn to be a visual storyteller. Learn to tell visual stories close to where you live. If you can find something near you and tell a compelling story close to home you will not need much money and you can put the time into learning about your subjects and understanding their lives.
How did you get the job at National Geographic?
Following my dream. I wanted to be a NGM photographer since I was 8 years old. You need to believe in yourself and your dream and never ever give up!
I started out working on small stories pieces for the magazine and then changed my concentration from people to animals.
Who determines the brief of a project? How much flexibility do you have, as your subject matter can be so unpredictable?
Experience is the best teacher – and know that every problem has a solution. Never give up when you can spend another day giving yourself another opportunity to be successful.
How do you make the transition back home after these incredible wildlife encounters/projects?
This can be the most difficult of times. I call home once or twice a day in the field to keep the emotional connection to home and my family. I need to hear what is happening at home, share in the joys and problems so when I return I know what has been happening and though I have been absent I have an idea of what is going on.
What drew you into wildlife photography?
It was quite by accident. I had a commercial shoot in Costa Rica, working with scientists in the rainforest. The forest blew me away with its incredible diversity. Coming from being a photojournalist covering politics and the economy, spending my days with passionate and dedicated researchers in the rainforest really excited me.
Also one of the scientists I met told me of a story that had both wildlife and people – about the quetzal – the sacred bird of the Maya, that had never been photographed by NGM – that began my career in wildlife.
I did not take a photograph of an animal until I was 34 years old, while I was on that trip in Costa Rica. It was of a marine turtle coming back into the sea at dawn after laying its eggs under the sand on a beach.
What is your most memorable wildlife encounter on the job to date?
Every story has a memorable wildlife encounter. Some are scary and others are just amazing. But the most important ones end for me with an amazing image. I was watching a tiger hunting elephant babies one day and he was unsuccessful as the matriarch would not allow him to get close to the young. As he walked away after an hour I took a photograph of why tigers have stripes – camoflague – a tiger walking through burnt grasses – amazing.
What message would you like to share with the world about wildlife conservation?
If we save big cats we can save ourselves. The forests in which the big cats live are the lungs of the world and provide 75% of the fresh water we need to live – so if we save the big cats and their homes we can help to save ourselves.