As a child growing up in the ’60s, Steve Winter traveled the world through the pictures in National Geographic, but it wasn’t the photos of lions and tigers that intrigued him.
“I wanted to walk those dusty streets in exotic places and meet the people in the pictures,” says Winter. “Looking at an image of an elephant, I thought the guy on the animal, the mahout, was cool.”
So how did this people-centric boy growing up among cows and corn in Indiana come to be the world’s foremost “big cat guy” shooting for National Geographic?
Working as a New York photojournalist for the likes of TIME and Newsweek, Winter was hired by a pharmaceutical company in 1990 to photograph its scientists at work in the jungles of Costa Rica. Interacting with passionate researchers in a wild environment changed his life and charted a course for pursuing natural history stories. His first assignment for National Geographic featured quetzals, spectacular birds of Central America’s cloud forests. During months in a blind in Guatemala waiting for glimpses of the birds, he caught sight of a jaguar’s tail draped from a tree, then watched wide-eyed as the cat crashed through the forest. And, late one night, he lay frozen in bed as the stairs of his hut creaked and something scratched at his flimsy door.
“The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I saw the jaguar’s pugmarks by my shoes in the morning,” Winter recalls.
So began his quest for cats. Working on a snow leopard story at 15,000 feet in the Himalaya mountains, he found himself sweating with fear despite subzero temperatures, not fear of the cats he sought, but of not getting photographs of an animal that’s near impossible to see. Camera traps—remote cameras triggered by movement—were essential. For most wildlife photographers, observing animals is part of the thrill, but Winter almost never sees his subjects. The titles of his stories speak to the elusiveness of the cats he seeks: “Out of the Shadows,” “Ghost Cats” and “Phantom of the Forest.”
“I have to visualize the images in my head and have the patience to believe I’m going to get the shots,” he says. “I call it ‘Zen and the art of camera trapping.’ But 99% of the time, I see nothing when reviewing images. It’s maddening.”
Getting the shots is a long shot, despite his meticulous preparation, but the payoff is big. A snow leopard image earned him the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year title from the Natural History Museum of London, and a series of tiger images won Wildlife Photojournalist of the Year in the same competition, as well as Conservation Photographer of the Year in the Por el Planeta contest. His list of honors is long, but for Winter, it’s not about winning awards.
“I 100% believe in the power of photography to change the world,” he says. “My goal is to reach people with my images and move them to take meaningful action.”
His pictures have called attention to the plight of wild cats—poaching, shrinking habitat and the Chinese medicine trade. His book, Tigers Forever (National Geographic, 2013), is a masterful compilation of inspiring wildlife and photojournalism pictures, which weaves a hopeful story of the dedicated researchers and rangers racing to save this endangered species.“If we save big cats, we save ourselves,” he says, noting that most of the world’s wild felines live in forests that provide fresh water, food and oxygen for people. Perhaps no image has done more to call attention to big cats than Winter’s picture of a California mountain lion with the iconic “Hollywood” sign in the background. The photo changed how people view urban wildlife. It also catalyzed the California Department of Transportation to conduct a feasibility study for a wildlife overpass, which would allow animals safer passage through the urban jungle of greater Los Angeles. Says Winter, “If my pictures give people hope and a reason to care, then I can’t ask for anything more.”
Steve Winter has won several awards and wide recognition for his wildlife photography, including being named BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and BBC Wildlife Photojournalist of the Year. He lectures around the world on photography and conservation issues. Learn more about his work at stevewinterphoto.com.