With only a couple of weeks to go until award-winning National Geographic photographer Steve Winter brings his talk, My Nine Lives, to Auckland and Wellington, we asked a few questions about his journey into many dangerous situations to photograph the planet’s big cats.
D-Photo: How long have you been photographing wildlife?
Steve Winter: From the age of eight I had wanted to be a National Geographic photographer. I began as a photojournalist supplying photos to publications like Time, Business Week, Fortune, and der Spiegel. I didn’t, however, take my first professional photo of an animal until I was 34 years old.
At the time, I’d been working for a big agency in New York. They knew I wanted to work for National Geographic when they assigned me to a PR shoot for a pharmaceutical company who were trying to find new drugs in the rainforest. It changed my life from chasing after presidents to looking at a natural world and telling those stories. I found it much more exciting and I got a lot more out of working with these scientists than I did being pushed around by the secret service while photographing President Clinton.
Why big cats?
They chose me. I didn’t know anything about them at the time. I have no background in biology or science. On my first animal story for National Geographic magazine, I was visited by a jaguar and that is where my presentation My Nine Lives will begin. My story working with big cats totally happened by accident — 100 per cent. It’s funny how in life we have all these different paths we take and we do things that we could never imagine we would do if we had a plan.
Have you ever come close to death?
Yes, in India. I was riding an elephant when it was attacked by a rhino. These rhinos had become very territorial and will attack until you leave their space, which we obviously did. That moment was the scariest moment of my career. People ask if it was scarier than being charged by a tiger, or a big bear, or a jaguar, or a dog, or falling in quick sand. Yes, 100 per cent.
What have been some of the best moments on the job? Do you have a favourite shot?
Life changed when I did the story on snow leopards because I had to find a way to use remote cameras to photograph an animal that I would never see. Once I learned how to do that, and I saw the response from the public to these images and the stories behind them, that changed my life.
I realized how important it was to find images that people hadn’t seen before, especially in our day and age when we all carry in our pocket a camera or a video.
I don’t look at individual images as much as I look at bodies of work. My ultimate goal is to protect and save these animals. I take the beautiful pictures and weave in the conflict pictures and tell the story of what we’ve done to our natural world and how it affects the animals.
The last famous picture I got was the Hollywood cougar. It was a picture of a mountain lion with the Hollywood sign in it — right in downtown Hollywood with LA in the distance. These images helped galvanize the public in LA and they realized that these cats need a wildlife overpass. That image was important to me.
What’s next on your list?
[Speaking from the jungles of Sri Lanka] I’m trying to find images of leopards that people haven’t seen before. I’ve just come from India where I’d been trying to find a group of big cats in one of the largest cities in the world, Mumbai. It’s going to change people’s view of how they see humans living with predators. Constantly we talk about these dangerous animals when in reality the leopard is the most adaptable animal on the planet. In December’s National Geographic you will see leopards living right next to apartment buildings.
What do you hope people take away from the show?
I love telling stories and people love the idea of being a National Geographic photographer. I had wanted to be one since I was eight, so I’m the luckiest guy on the planet. We start with big cats interaction and go through jaguars, leopards, mountain lions, and tigers. The stories are of my life working with National Geographic.
My Nine Lives will be at Auckland’s ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre on August 5, and will then travel to Wellington’s Te Papa Museum for August 6. For more information and to book tickets, head to ticketmaster.co.nz.