Show the Beauty and the Heartbreak

Conversation: Steve Winter

Even if you don’t recognize Steve Winter by name, you are bound to have spotted his photographs, particularly those of big cats, in magazines, in books, online, or on TV. His iconic shot of P-22, the Griffith Park mountain lion, with LA’s Hollywood sign in the background; the ethereal image of a rare snow leopard on a prowl during a snowstorm in the high mountains of Ladakh; the heart-breaking photo of a wounded and terrified Sumatran tiger cub in a cage in Indonesia — each of these images speaks of Winter’s eye for detail and his immense patience with his wild subjects.

Winter, who sort of stumbled into wildlife photography, spends weeks, even months, tracking these elusive cats, learning their habits, and locating their favorite spots before setting up his cameras. For the snow leopard shot, which won him BBC’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year award in 2013, he spent six months in a tent in the Himalayas at brutal, sub-zero temperatures. He sometimes photographs these animals in person, but more often these days, he uses camera traps. Usually used by scientists to gather data about wildlife, Winter has turned camera trapping into an art form, choosing a location to set up his specially designed motion-sensor cameras and lights so that the frames can reveal the beauty of the animal’s habitat and offer some information about its behavior as well. “I look at the locations like movie sets,” he says.

But while he’s all for capturing the incredible beauty of the natural world, Winter, who has been a contributing photographer with National Geographic since 1995, is equally concerned with revealing the many threats facing our planet and its nonhuman denizens. To not do so would be a disservice, he says. And by the way, he has some choice words for scientists who say animals don’t have emotions!

I believe you’ve wanted to be a National Geographic photographer since you were eight years old …

(Laughs) My dad was an amateur photographer. He gave me an instamatic Kodak camera when I was seven. And when I was eight years old, I remember saying — as I was looking through the two magazines that made a difference to me, National Geographic and Life — that I wanted to be a NatGeo photographer.

I grew up in a very conservative farm country in Indiana and though everybody was Republican and conservative around me, I was not. I’d get in arguments at the bus stop. Most people ask me, How the hell can you be political when you are just eight years old? But it was the Civil Rights era. JFK had just been killed and I saw these pictures in the magazines of protestors being attacked by German shepherds and fire hoses … and internally, I realized that photography could change the world, because those images were having a huge impact.

When you grew up to be a professional photographer as planned, you started out covering people. How did you transition to wildlife photography?

I had no inkling. None. Zero. Zip. Never entered my mind, that I would ever take pictures of animals. [In the early 1990s] I was doing a series about kids and scientists working with animals [for World, National Geographic’s magazine for children] … when I heard the [main] magazine was looking for animal stories. So I proposed my first animal story on the resplendent quetzal. It had never been done before.

So I ended up in a cloud forest, Sierra de las Minas in Guatemala, all alone in a one-room cabin on top of a mountain. I wouldn’t let the [local] naturalist I was working with, Juan Carlos, stay with me at night because his father and brother had been shot by loggers. One night when I was all alone reading a book, I heard the stairs creaking. Then I heard the floorboards creaking. Somebody was coming up. I thought it was those [logger] guys with shotguns because I would see them walking through the forest. And I thought, I’m a dead man. And then I heard scratching at the door and then sniffing and then all the hairs on my whole body stood up. I had a machete next to my bed. I picked it up, whacked it on the side of the bed. I heard nothing. Then I whistled (whistles). And then I heard front paws and back paws going down the stairs. I grabbed the walkie-talkie and I called Juan Carlos and I told him what was happening. He said: Steve, no problema, don’t worry. It’s just a black panther.

The next day he brought me a gun. A gun that was so old that had I fired, it would have probably blown up in my face. I told him I wasn’t going to shoot the cat. I know that it was just curious. What animal would come to your door and scratch and sniff unless it was curious? It was following me because it wanted to know who I was. It wasn’t coming to kill me.

It took me three months to get the final shot of the quetzal that I wanted — of the bird sitting on a branch with a miniature avocado in its mouth. I spotted the jaguar 30 minutes before I got that shot. When I returned home, I found out that National Geographic had never done a story on the jaguar before. The world’s third-largest cat, and they had never done a story! So I put the word out that I needed to go someplace where you could see a jaguar. And all of a sudden, I got an email from a scientist in Brazil who said, I just came to a place you can see jaguars and I just collared one so why don’t you come on down?

And so it began, the fascination with big cats, right? You’ve mentioned in several past interviews and talks that you didn’t choose big cats, the big cats chose you.

Right. I always say for me it was that first jaguar. Most people that I know who got involved in natural history photography had a background in it. Like Brian Skerry who does underwater photography, he’s always been a diver. [Canadian marine biologist and photographer] Paul Nicklin grew up in the Arctic. I didn’t own a nature photography book or one on landscapes. I wouldn’t have thought of doing a jaguar story had I not been visited by a jaguar.

You’ve said before that animals don’t live in a Shangri La but most of the wildlife photography we see makes it seem like they do and that’s a disservice to the public. Can you explain?

Well, the perfect example would be the Todoba Tiger Reserve in India. Depending on which gate you enter the reserve through, you may see the biggest hole in the ground that you’ve ever seen. It’s a massive open pit coal mine. That tiger reserve is under direct threat because of the coal mine — but no one was photographing it or talking about it.

One of Winter's personal favorites — a Bengal tiger mom and her two-month-old cub in Bandhavgarh National Park, India. Photo Steve Winter
One of Winter’s personal favorites — a Bengal tiger mom and her two-month-old cub in Bandhavgarh National Park, India. Photo Steve Winter

I mean, there is no animal on the face of the Earth that isn’t impacted by us as humans. And that’s the whole idea [behind my work] — trying to get people to realize that the planet is our life support system. Does anybody think every time you take a breath, where does that oxygen comes from? It’s forests that create the oxygen, the ocean that creates the other 50 percent of the oxygen. And every time you turn on the tap in your kitchen sink, or you take a shower or you drink water: Where does that water come from? Same thing — forests, grasslands, and mountains.

I always say that if we can save big cats, we can help save ourselves, because big cats live in all these forests. So when you do a story and don’t show the issues facing these animals, you just show these pretty pictures, of course, you’re doing a disservice to everybody.

I can’t go out and not try to help these animals or show the problems they’re in. Not when you can drive for an hour in the Sumatran tiger’s land and only see cleared forest or palm oil plantations. I have to show that. I have to show the cub that lost a paw from being stuck in a snare in Indonesia. Because the government’s bringing over all these people from Java for the last 40 years or 50 years to repopulate Sumatra and they need to feed their families. So they put snares up. And you can’t tell someone not to feed their family. So I need to show all that.

People sit around and sing The Circle of Life from Lion King, but they don’t include people in that circle of life because we’re supposedly separated. Wherever there’s Western religions, we separate ourselves from Earth, whereas all Indigenous peoples make it that we’re all connected.

You’ve been to places like the interiors of Myanmar where the Indigenous people still hunt tigers, and other parts of Asia, where animal parts are used as medicine. How do you think we can tread the fine line between respecting cultural traditions and protecting wildlife?

It’s not the Indigenous people except for the poachers that are the problem and I firmly believe in trying to change people’s ideas about using endangered species. Tiger poaching now is for wealth not health. It’s for status symbols. And so there are Indigenous people helping professional poachers. But you can’t ring these parks with police. You have to change the demand.

And that’s happening. For example, young people in China want to go to the pharmacy and get a pill when they have a problem. They don’t want rhino horn. They understand that these endangered species products don’t do anything. They have no additional value. So [conservationists and activists] try to change young people’s minds and maybe they can guilt their parents or grandparents about grinding up animal parts.

You photograph a lot of live animals in the wilderness, but you’ve also had to photograph a lot of dead animals, right? Animals that have been hunted or killed for some reason. Is it hard for you to shoot such photographs?

This may sound bad, but you’re hoping to [find poached or trapped animals to shoot]. You need these pictures. The picture of the cub inside the cage, of the guys holding up the bear paws … or the picture of the little girl holding the picture of a tiger that was poached out of the zoo. They are important.

I know my picture of skinned Kamchatka bears in a hunting camp [in Russia] with the skinned heads sitting in the snow helped save Kamchatka bears. That picture was able to garner a hundred grand [for a conservation program] for the bear. And [the Russian government] put restrictions on hunting in the area.

I cried while shooting a tiger cub whose leg had been mangled by a poacher’s snare [and had to be amputated], but I knew I had to photograph it. It was so scared, you saw the fear on his face. And I’m always saying animals have emotion.

Has your work with wildlife changed how you feel about animals?

That’s one of the other things, they keep saying don’t anthropomorphize animals — fuck off! The reason we aren’t closer to nature is because these ridiculous scientists have been saying keep arm’s distance and don’t give human traits to animals. Animals have emotion. Why did you deny this? You [scientists] have had a whole generation of people removed from nature because of your ridiculous attitude. I’m enraged by this.

Luckily, this next generation is hearing differently.

Of all the images that you’ve captured, is there one that stands out to you? That you were most touched by?

That’s so hard to say. It changes. My favorite picture used to be that dead bears picture because it got all the money to help save the bears. People were enraged when they saw that. If it makes you want to turn the page, you’re going to go back and go, Oh what was that about? Maybe I cannot look at the picture but I can read the caption. That’s the picture that makes the difference.

I love the Hollywood cougar picture because it’s going to help build the world’s largest wildlife overpass. The first picture I got of [the mountain lion] P-22 with all the land in the background, they put it on the cover of the Los Angeles Times on a Saturday and all hell broke loose because there’s over 20 million people visiting Griffith Park [every year] and they’re like, There’s a mountain lion there? But now there’s a permanent exhibit at the LA Natural History Museum with my pictures, talking about wildlife corridors and the need for the overpass and how dangerous it is for these animals to have to go across the busiest freeways … It’s the number one draw of the whole museum to this day. So from dead bears to P-22, the Hollywood cougar, it’s whatever makes the difference.

Given the extinction crisis and the climate crisis we are in, what gives you hope?

When you go to these remote places you know that there are wild places left on the face of the Earth. The world we live in is jaw-droppingly incredible. We are ruining so much of it, but there’s a lot still left. And people are doing things to help save it. We have to have hope; otherwise how do you wake up in the morning?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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