There are as many photographs as there are photographers with cameras and subjects to photograph, but one thing links them all, Steve Winter believes.
“My father used to say there are three things you need to have in a great photograph: composition, composition, composition,” Winter said, during a wide-ranging, sit-down conversation in Los Angeles this past summer.
The career National Geographic photographer and Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 finalist has a new photo essay in December’s National Geographic magazine, “Kingdom of the Jaguar,” with an article by writer Chip Brown, along with a new nature film, Jaguar vs. Croc, which Winter recorded in Brazil’s Pantanal region with cameraman Bertie Gregory. Jaguar vs. Croc will premiere on NatGeo Wild in the US and National Geographic channels around the world on Dec. 10, to kick off NatGeo’s eighth annual “Big Cat Week.”
“Like any art form, a photograph needs to connect emotionally with the viewer,” Winter explained. “Without that you have nothing.”
Winter wants to give viewers pause, with his own photos. For the past 26 years he has specialized in conservation photography, specifically big cats, a vocation that has seen him journey around the world, to grasslands, savannahs, rainforests, mountain peaks and arid deserts.
“Obviously, with a great photograph, you want your eye to move around the frame, but without that emotion there’s really nothing,” Winter continued. “As far as my work with big cats goes, I want something that also that makes you stop and go, ‘ah.’
“A lot of people look at some of my pictures and think they’re photoshopped. I love that. Because that means your brain had to a connect in a way that you actually had that thought, rather than just look at it and move on.”
Winter is fastidious about not using bait, or any other form of human interference that could affect the natural behaviour of the animal he’s trying to photograph. Working for National Geographic affords him that luxury, he says: He lives, breathes and sleeps in the field for months at a time, in pursuit of that elusive, all-important single image that tells a story that hasn’t been told before.
Arguably his most famous photograph, of a wild mountain lion living in Griffith Park the Hollywood Hills, in the heart of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, was taken with a camera trap. The cat, dubbed P-22 and fitted with a remote-control tracking collar by local field biologists, arguably became the most famous city-dwelling big cat on the planet, if only for a moment, owing to that one image.
Without camera traps, many of the world’s most elusive animals would never be captured in the wild, exhibiting natural behaviour. The world might not even know they exist. It’s good that people know such animals do exist, as habitat destruction is the single greatest threat facing them. The camera trap has done more to aid wildlife conservation efforts than perhaps any recent breakthrough in scientific technology.
“The Hollywood Cougar,” as Winter’s 2013 photo has come to be known, “looks fake,” he said, “but it’s not.
“I’ve never baited. We never do that. We spend so much trying to get that photograph that nobody’s ever seen — why would I waste my time or my assets or my anything baiting? That’s why I get two-and-a-half months to do an assignment.”
Winter’s recent work with jaguars involved old-fashioned sweating in the jungle and staking out jungle trails, finding and photographing big cats the old-fashioned way, but it was camera traps that shaped his earliest National Geographic assignments.
“Camera traps changed the game for me because I opened my mouth and said that I would do snow leopards. In 1999 my editor sent an email out and it took me seven years to start the story, because I don’t like the cold. I had used camera traps on jaguars to fairly nominal effect, and that’s how I found the Pantanal. (One of the unintended success stories of my career is finding the Pantanal and it now being where everybody goes to see jaguars.)
“Camera traps changed the game for me because I said I’d do something that l could never have done without camera traps. To this day, every wild snow leopard picture that anybody gets is one of the luckiest things they’ve gotten, and will ever get, and it all goes back to that.”
He came to jaguars for Jaguars vs. Croc honestly.
“I did the first ever jaguar story for the National Geographic. I did it partly for economic reasons. I was struggling to do stories other people hadn’t done because I wouldn’t get a ‘no.’
“I had a great interest in jaguars because my first ever animal encounter with a big cat was with a black jaguar, one night in Guatemala. It came up to my door at night because cats are curious. Scratched under the door, sniffed. Luckily the door was locked.
“If anybody would have told me then my next story would be jaguars I would have told them they were crazy, because I didn’t know anything about them.
“Then I found out that National Geographic had never done a story on jaguars. My wife, who is the smarter of the two, said, ‘If Nat Geo has never done a story on the world’s third biggest cat, don’t you figure there must be a good reason why?’”
Adjusting back to civilization after a long time in the wild can pose its own challenges. Winter, just hours off a flight from Peru, was sitting in the lobby bar of the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., home to Hollywood royalty and a history that dates back to the silent movies, just a half-hour’s drive inland from Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean.
“When I first started, I had a very difficult time coming home. Because you could go from the Pantanal, which was my second wildlife story since I was a photojournalist, and then be driving over the Pulaski Skyway through Newark and seeing Manhattan in the distance and going home, after being gone for two months. It was psychologically difficult. How I got through it is I call home twice a day and talk to my wife. In the beginning, it was satellite phones, because I had no choice.
“That’s 100% true. If I wasn’t connected, number one, I couldn’t do my job. Some people say, ‘Oh I don’t call home, because psychologically that’d screw me up.’ No. Because I have a psychological life outside of where I am doing these stories. That life is valuable to me. My family is valuable to me. I have a connection that I found was necessary.
“Now, after all these years, we’re still together, working together, and loving working together. I know a lot of people say, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that.’ Not me. I’m so lucky in many areas. I’m doing my life. I’m living my dream. And I get to work with my wife.”
When in public, Winter is often asked if he’s ever been in perilous situations photographing some of the world’s most dangerous predators, in their backyard. It’s not a foolish question exactly, Winter says, but there’s a simple answer.
“Close calls, I’ve had quite a few. The one thing you have to realize is that we’re not a part of any of these predators’ image search, haven’t been for millennia. The reason people fear sharks or big cats is because of a few individual circumstances, whether it’s Jaws, The Man-eaters of Tsavo, Jim Corbett’s tales of man-eating tigers and leopards — these individual tales have created this collective fear in us.
“But these animals have no desire to hunt us. Every situation that I’ve been in where I’ve been scared me to death, where I can’t breathe, has been through accidental circumstances. On my first jaguar story, I was following a cat who decided he was going to follow me, and I accidentally came within 12 feet from him. That’s how I got my opening picture. I couldn’t breathe, I was shaking so bad, I figured it’d be blurry. It wasn’t.
“Usually, for me, it’s coming into an animal’s territory when they don’t want you there. You live and learn. Everything’s a learning experience. One of the most important parts of my life has been making mistakes and or being in uncomfortable situations, and then doing a better job and acting differently the next time. You need to learn that in the natural world. Especially for a layman such as I was when I started out. My education was funded by the National Geographic, I like to say. I learned all about big cats from just doing.”
Winter is now active on the lecture circuit. Far from being a letdown after the excitement of being in the field, Winter says it has opened a whole new road in his life’s path. Holding an auditorium’s attention is a challenge in its own right.
“I start with a video, and then it’s a constant barrage. Well, not a barrage, exactly but I do try to show a lot of work in a short period of time. I make every effort to make it personal. I always used to say that if I wasn’t onstage, I’d be in the crowd. And as long as I think that way, then I can hold the crowd. Because that makes it personal.
“The most important aspect to me are the school lectures. Because I can hold people. I’m very proud of my NG Live [National Geographic Live] tour and selling out the Sydney Opera House for the first time in NG Live history, and all that. But to keep kids’ attention and then have teachers come up aghast, where they saying,‘You could’ve heard a pin drop. How did you do that? I know these kids. I’m their teacher; I can’t keep them quiet’ — that means everything to me. Sometimes you’ll have 2,500 kids, and that is a challenge.
“One other thing I wanted to say. It’s my new career, and I love it more than anything than I’ve done recently — standing in front of a crowd and telling my stories. Because I don’t see people when they turn the page of the magazine. I don’t sit in their living room while they watch the television programs. But I can watch their faces as I‘m standing onstage, and I absolutely love it.”