Image credit: Steve Winter

Not many photographers can boast of adventures such as being stalked by jaguars in Brazil, charged by grizzly bears in Siberia or attacked by rhinos in India, but to Steve Winter such experiences were only imminent in his career.

As a child growing up in rural Indiana, Winter dreamed of travelling around the world as a photographer for National Geographic magazine. That aspiration did turn into reality — he became a National Geographic photojournalist in 1991 and has since covered subjects such as Russia’s giant Kamchatka bears, tigers in Myanmar’s Hukawng Valley, the elusive cougars of Griffith Park in Los Angeles and life along Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River.

Among a host of accolades, Winter was in 2008 named Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his image of an elusive snow leopard on a night-time prowl in the mountains of central Asia.

The 59-year-old is the first of two speakers lined up for the second edition of National Geographic Live in Singapore, and will take the stage on 25th August. Quotient TravelPlanner returns as the series sponsor for this public learning programme, where explorers share their experiences and touch on issues relating to people and the environment.

Ahead of his speaking engagement, Winter opened up to Quotient about capturing images of large predators and why photography is a powerful tool to create awareness about endangered animals.

Quotient: Hi Steve. Tell us a little about how you began your photography career. Which photographers or mentors served as role models or inspiration during your career?
Winter: When I first started, it was primarily guys like Cartier Bresson and Robert Capa. Another important one was Eugene Smith. I used to look at Life magazine stories that they did. Those photographers… created stories about people and their lives and that was important to me when I was younger.

Then, I went to school and as I got a little older, I became an assistant and started my career at National Geographic. National Geographic photographer Nick Nichols was my mentor. He was really instrumental in shaping my career and we talked a lot about photography. I learned a lot from Nick.

Steve Winter with guards

The “incredible amount of research” behind successful NatGeo stories entails talking to scientists and finding local support. Image credit: Sharon Guynup

I also learned a lot from the other wildlife photographers, since I was not involved in wildlife when I started out. There was Chris Johns who ended up being an editor-in-chief at National Geographic magazine. He was a star photographer who melded people and animals. When you start as a photojournalist, you tell visual stories about people and their lives. When you become a wildlife photographer, you need to do the same — you tell the story of the wildlife, how human impacts them and the ecosystem in which they live.

How do you prepare for projects in harsh environments?
The most important aspect of any story is the research that we do ahead of time. Once you decide on the subject, you then need to get permits to be able to work in that specific country. We do an incredible amount of research on whether it’s actually possible to succeed at this. We talk to the scientists involved, find local NGOs (non-governmental organisations), local conservation projects and international organisations that we can work with.

You prepare for harsh environments, simply by finding out what those harsh environments are and being sure that you’re able to function while you are there, and be as comfortable as possible at different temperatures. You check if your equipment will work properly in these conditions and if you could complete this assignment. You need to have everything carefully prepared to successfully complete that assignment. You can’t be freezing to death while working in the cold and expect to do a good job. You have to be prepared for whatever environment you’re actually going to work in.

Tiger cubs playing at a waterhole in Bandhavgarh National Park.

These tigers were photographed with a remote camera in India’s Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. Image credit: Steve Winter

These days, how much of your time is spent photographing wildlife?
Generally speaking, for the stories I’ve done, about 50% is wildlife and 50% is the rest of the story which means people, how the environment has been impacted by humans and how that affects the animals. In the end, when I look at all the major stories that I’ve done in the past and put them in context, I can say 50% or less are actually photographs of that animal, the rest is the story.

How different is photographing big cats compared to other wildlife?
Photographing big cats is much easier in a way and much harder at the same time. Many of the cats that I worked with are very secretive so it’s hard to find them. That’s one of the reasons why I use remote cameras to photograph some of the elusive cats. But cats are big, so once you do find them, they are easy to compose in the frames.

Which is your favourite big cat and why?
I worked with tigers more than with any other cats, so I would say that tigers would be my favourite just because I spent more time with them. But in reality, the favourite is the next thing you’re going to do.

You use camera traps when photographing large predators. What’s the advantage of using them as opposed to shooting from a blind?
Camera traps give you a completely different view of the animals. Because it’s an eye-to-eye close-up with wide angle length, it gives an intimate view of their lives. In the blind you’re sitting with a long length lens. We don’t actually use a lot of long length photography now.

Tigers in Bandhavgarh National Park India

A mother Bengal tiger and her cub are photographed in India’s Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. Image credit: Steve Winter

In the blind, you focus on a point with a long length, so why not put a wide angle camera trap on that same location. You get the animal in that spot and it gives me more flexibility of trying to figure out where the animal walks and a beautiful landscape that helps show their home and you get that landscape and them in the photograph at the same time. Also in the forests or in the mountains, you could stay for months at a time trying to get one image and economically, that just does not work.

If you put 10 camera traps out, that’s like having 10 people in a blind at one time. So in this day and age, where funding is from media, using remote cameras is pretty much the only way to do it.

In your work, creating awareness about animals is crucial. How do you feel your accomplishments as a wildlife photographer have impacted the causes you care about?
Every time we work on a story, we really begin a conversation about that animal, about that environment, or situation or cause. Then it’s published as a National Geographic story. Nowadays, we’re also doing a lot of television along with the piece. So for any animal that I have worked on, as soon as the story comes out, it gets a lot of visibility. If then you go to a contest and you win, then the animal is actually more visible.

Snow Leopards

Winter meticulously arranges remote cameras to capture unique shots of big cats in their own habitat. Image credit: Steve Winter

So this helps bring the stories to the public and hopefully, you give them reasons to care about what you’re working on. Especially now through social media, we’re able to really move the dial. We have a huge following on Facebook and Instagram so there’s so much exposure whenever our stories are published and in the months afterwards.

If you could have people do one thing to help save endangered animals, what would it be?
I doubt that you could do one thing to save the endangered animals. Nowadays, people need to realise that everybody has a voice and if you use that voice on social media, you could be a part of many different issues and petitions. And your voice is compounded by all the other people that believe in the same cause as well. This makes it much easier to move things forward.

If you wanted to force a company to use sustainable palm oil and help to save Sumatran orang-utans, you could start a petition online. The one voice multiplied by millions makes a huge difference.

Steve Winter in Myanmar

Winter has covered many subjects, including tigers in Myanmar’s Hukawng Valley and life along its Irrawaddy River. Image credit: Steve Winter

You’ve had your fair share of amazing experiences to capture the perfect photograph. You’ve been charged by a grizzly bear in Siberia, stalked by jaguars in Brazil and visited incredibly isolated places. What’s next on your list? What is your dream assignment?
I don’t really have a dream assignment right now. I’m going to do jaguars again. I did the first jaguar story and one thing I never got was jaguar cubs and that is kind of my Holy Grail — something I really want to get this time around. And I think we would be able to do it this time.

You live in New Jersey. In your opinion, what are some of best places there (or in the East Coast) for photography enthusiasts?
On the East Coast of the United States close to where I live, there are many places to do all kinds of photography — for example even right in New York City and its surrounding areas.

There is a never-ending group of different kinds of people, architecture, landscapes, everything around the New York area and all the coasts around it. No matter where you go, you’ll find something that will interest you photographically. If you want to photograph animals right in the city, there are some great zoos. Or you could go to areas in the North West of the country to actually photograph animals in the wild.