How do you prepare for a Skype interview with one of the world’s leading wildlife photographers – or photojournalists (a big difference as you’ll soon read) – Steve Winter, whose breathtaking images of big cats around the world have resulted in positive conservation gains for species?
At ARKive, it’s a no-brainer. You turn to your audience of incredibly passionate nature fans who are bursting at the seams with meaningful questions on all things wildlife imagery and conservation. A few weeks ago, we asked you to send us the one burning question you would ask if you were about to Skype with Steve Winter. He is currently in the throes of capturing emotive images of the illegal tiger trade in India. Working with author Sharon Guynup, Steve has chronicled everything from the tiger black market to tiger sanctuaries ill-equipped to handle today’s sophisticated poachers.
We randomly selected five of your questions and each of them buzzed through my head in advance of the interview last week as I patiently waited for Steve’s Skype name to turn from translucent to green. It turned green, he called, and the interview was on…
“If you don’t tell the story, all the pretty pictures in the world won’t do a thing.”
Rafael asked, “How did you wind up on the wildlife and conservation photographer path?”
While Steve was very happy to answer this question, he was adamant about making one thing very clear from the beginning. “I don’t want the label ‘wildlife photographer’. I more consider myself a photojournalist with a conservation concentration. Being a photojournalist, you have to tell the story of the photography, the people, the environment and the animals. If you don’t tell the story, all the pretty pictures in the world won’t do a thing. All the incredible beautiful parts of the wild and species we work with doesn’t make a difference unless you tell the story.”
I had never heard this concept explained quite so elegantly before and I couldn’t help but completely agree with Steve.
So, how did Steve end up sitting atop the back of an elephant in India taking pictures of one of the world’s most threatened big cats? He explains, “I got a job with Merck Pharmaceuticals photographing species in the Costa Rican rainforest and it changed my life 180 degrees. I didn’t know anything about being a wildlife photographer and I viewed what I was doing as photojournalism. I always wanted to be a National Geographic photographer but never thought in a million years I would be a wildlife photographer. I started as a photojournalist and having a concentration on the natural world happened in Costa Rica while working for Merck. It’s where it all began.”
“Camera traps are so worthwhile because you can put them places you can’t go.”
Sascha asked, “When is the best time of day to photograph a tiger?”
Just as Stefano Unterthiner answered in our last wildlife photographer interview, Steve said, “It’s the same as most wildlife photography – early morning and late evening but also whenever a tiger is moving. Tigers are cats so they sleep most of the time and they will be moving by the time you’re allowed to go find them in the tiger parks and up to the time you are forced to leave the tiger parks at dusk.”
Steve then went on to explain more about his technique in capturing powerful images of such an elusive species. “It’s one of the reasons camera traps are so worthwhile because you can put them places you can’t go. For a normal story, depending on the species, a camera trap will encompass 10 to 20% of the images, sometimes more for the rarer animals. They give you an opportunity to investigate and understand an animal’s movements and behavior. With that knowledge, which is given to you by scientists, researchers, and local people, you’re able to find locations similar to where you might set up a blind or hide. I use camera traps and a wide angle lens at a close-up, intimate location similar to where I would focus my long telephoto lens if I was using a standard camera. Using the camera trap, I center on a spot in the frame using an infrared beam to get the animal front and center. I know exactly where the animal is going to be.”
Camera traps were the tool of choice used to capture the incredible, iconic Hollywood cougar image which, Steve shared, took 15 months of trials and preparation to achieve!
“There are just so many moments out in the wilderness that transcends anything in your life.”
Claudie asked, “For you, personally, what is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen in a tiger?”
Steve didn’t hesitate a moment before answering, “Everything.” He then continued to say two of the most profound statements of the entire interview, in my opinion. “There are just so many moments out in the wilderness that transcends anything in your life. It brings you closer to the whole universe, not just the animal.” He went on to tell the story behind the cover image for his new book, Tigers Forever, a pictorial and factual tribute to the tigers of India and Southeast Asia, the life they live, and the threats they encounter every single day. “The cover picture of my book, Tigers Forever, marked a moment in nature for me. I waited 24 days for the image, much of it on top of an elephant and the other part in a jeep. Just the fact that everything came together…it really was a moment, just 10 seconds! I got five frames and one of them was the moment.”
He then described the transcendental experience of seeing a tiger in the wild. “You look into a tiger’s eye and it’s primeval. It takes you back to caveman times in your brain because it’s an absolutely amazing animal to me. I don’t like to have favorites because they are all special and have their own uniqueness to them. You become close to any species you work on for months or even years.”
“Just like an old western movie on horses, branches try to knock you off the back of a running elephant.”
Azhurel asked, “What’s your scariest encounter?”
Luckily, Steve shared that he hasn’t encountered any scary moments while working on tigers in India. However, he did recall a very scary moment while on assignment in Kaziranga National Park, India.
“I was on an elephant photographing rhinos but we were attacked by a rhino. The elephant tried to defend himself and was bit by the rhino. The elephant turned 180 degrees away and ran towards the forest. In the commotion, we lost the gun.” The rhino continued to chase the elephant, with Steve on top, for at least 300 yards into the forest and the only way the rhino relented was after repeated jabs with a long bamboo pole that Steve’s camera was attached to. “Just like an old western movie on horses, branches try to knock you off the back of a running elephant!”
“It’s vital that we help when we can to bring the public to the story.”
Bernie asked, “In your words, how does wildlife photography support species protection and conservation?”
And in Steve’s own words, he answered, “How can you work on something without wanting your pictures to make a difference, support education, and give people a reason to care? As a wildlife photojournalist, you don’t want the conversation to end on the pages of National Geographic magazine. You want the conversation to begin. Telling the story is important but in the end you want it to go further. Fundraisers and giving images to scientists and organizations you work with helps. It’s vital that we help when we can to bring the public to the story. That’s what protects the species.”
“In India, it’s difficult and I’m doing what I can there. Our book, Tigers Forever, shares the story with the public and our 10 years of efforts there. The book isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning.”
So, why not start your own journey now! Have a look at the ARKive tiger page with nearly 200 images and film clips as well as a full biological fact-file. Or, learn how the kids of India are doing their part to make a difference for tigers. Finally, you can pick up your own copy of Tigers Forever with 10% of the proceeds donated to Panthera, the world’s largest big cat conservation organization.
Liana Vitali, Education & Outreach Manager, Wildscreen USA