Humans have always had a fixation with the far reaches of the universe, whether it’s the exploration of distant galaxies or probing the possibilities of life on other planets. Yet for the editors, journalists and photographers that contribute to National Geographic, it’s the wonders of our terrestrial world that is the source of fascination. That’s what’s made the magazine one of the most popular places to discover the sights and scenery of this place called planet Earth.
Wildlife photographer, author and filmmaker Steve Winter, who has worked with that particular publication for the past 28 years, is well aware of its appeal. A winner of the BBC Photographer of the Year and Photojournalist of the Year awards, as well as a two-time winner of the Picture of the Year International Global Vision Award and a double first place award winner in the nature story category from World Press Photo, he has journeyed to Asia, Africa and South America to photograph a variety of animals, most of them big cats of the exotic variety. His efforts have helped bring an awareness of the plight of several of these endangered species and helped in the effort to prevent their exploitation and extinction.
A frequent guest on a number of network news shows, Winter brings his award-winning work to the Clayton Center for the Arts on Tuesday, as part of the National Geographic Live touring speaker series. He’ll share the stories behind his photographs and offer the audience an opportunity to witness and discover some precious examples of nature’s wonders captured by his camera.
“I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer since I was 8 years old,” Winter said, speaking on the phone the morning after returning from his latest assignment. “I got to realize my dream. This presentation covers the first part of my career, four specific cats, and how I got involved with those cats. I was a photojournalist when I started out, and did not take a picture of an animal until I was 34 years old.”
His first introduction to the magazine took place when he was asked to go to Costa Rica to take photos for a story about new drugs that were found in the rain forest.
“I said I had never been to the jungle,” he remembers. “But it was a lot more money than my day rates, so I said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ I went down with my wife who was a writer for a science magazine and my son, who was 5 1/2 years old. We spent six weeks in Costa Rica, and it changed our lives. Instead of working at the White House and doing the stories I had been doing, I was working with passionate and dedicated scientists. My wife and I now travel together as a family, and we work together.”
These days, Winter’s work focuses on the big cats he’s photographed for National Geographic — jaguars, snow leopards, cougars and tigers — and in his presentation, he talks about how his shots came about and the important conservation efforts that have resulted from his work.
“I had to learn two things,” Winter said. “First, to have faith in the people that you’re working with. I had no background. I barely passed high school and college. It was an accident. I had to rely on the local people because they lived with these animals. Also, I also had to learn to use remote cameras. I started with the hard animals, animals the magazine had never done. But on the other hand, my editors never said no. So that’s why I could keep on doing this.”
Needless to say, Winter’s assignments can be dangerous.
“I have been scared to death on every story I’ve done,” White admitted. “But the worst animals I’ve encountered are microscopic. The ones that give you malaria and get under your skin — parasites and things like that. I’m more afraid of rhinos than tigers because I’ve been attacked by rhinos many times. I was in a jeep once and one tried to flip us over five times. Once I was on an elephant, and a rhino attacked it ... It’s all the things that make life interesting.”
Nevertheless, as much as Winter loves his work in the wild, he also looks forward to any opportunity to talk about his trade.
“I love being onstage because it brings me closer to the audience,” Winter said. “I’ll sit and sign autographs for two hours. We have a great following. We’re the number one brand on social media, with almost a billion followers. Our twitter following has 123 million people. We’re below Taylor Swift and the Kardashians, but we’re a hell of a lot closer than we were. My last jaguar story got over two million views. It gives you faith that people are more visually literate than ever before.”
Winter says that those discussion are actually another source of his inspiration.
“I always say that if I wasn’t onstage, I’d be in the audience,” he said. “If I always approach it that way, then I’m going to give a very personal presentation. It’s funny, it’s sad, but it’s always very hopeful. You have to end it with hope because we’re all so battered in our daily lives. People always tell me, I laughed, I cried, but you gave me hope.’ That’s what I try to do.”