OKJ with Steve Winter: Not Just Taking Pretty Pictures Of Animals

OKJ with Steve Winter: Not Just Taking Pretty Pictures Of Animals
Photo Credit: Steve Winter

Photo Credit: Steve Winter

Steve Winter is a National Geographic photojournalist that earned his reputation in his work of telling stories about big cats. From Jaguars and Tigers, Steve Winter paints a visual story with his camera and experience - to shed light on the lives of these majestic felines and how they inevitably  intertwine with the people around them.

He will be sharing his passion and tales of adventure in the upcoming Live talk that is part of the National Geographic Live series on 25 August. But before that, I had the privilege to interview Steve Winter through phone and ask him some questions that will definitely whet our appetites of learning from the man is living his 8-year-old dream of being a National Geographic photojournalist.

Cougar with nighttime city in background / Photo Credit: Steve Winter

Cougar with nighttime city in background / Photo Credit: Steve Winter

OKJ: As a photojournalist, you take photos to tell a story. And on multiple occasion, you had mentioned that you want your photos to “connect” with the readers. How would you describe your method of creating that “connection” to a non-photographer?

STEVE: Well, that is difficult. I think that to be able to tell a visual story, it is a challenge. And to get people in this day and age to actually look at images again is a challenge that I like because you are looking for something that people had not seen before.

So a lot of people say something of my images look like that were photoshopped because they don’t look real. I do that on purpose, mainly using these remote cameras because we haven’t had an opportunity to get so close to many of these animals. And so it is my goal to get people to look at images of animals that we have become accustomed to.

We may love the tigers, the leopards and the lions, but we [have seen] so many of them. So if you can find a way to photograph these animals in a different way that stops people, whether it’s on Instagram, facebook or the pages of National Geographic. that means they are going to look at image even if they think it’s fake.

I like that they think its fake because its means that it takes maybe 10 seconds longer for them to process the fact that they think it’s an unusual picture. And those 10 seconds are the stepping stones [from] looking at the images and maybe investigating further. So I do not want to take just normal photographs that people had seen before, we have to find a way to engage the public in wildlife and wildlands again - so that’s my goal.

Snow leopard at night, Husing Valley / Photo Credit: Steve Winter

Snow leopard at night, Husing Valley / Photo Credit: Steve Winter


OKJ: In many of your assignments, you worked with experts such as locals and scientists to aid in your adventures (such as the laying of photo traps). Is there one expert that you had yet worked with but would love to and why?

STEVE: Well, I bounce around from one story to the next, so there is a lot of people that I would love to work with. Right now I am getting ready to do a story on Jaguars again, and so I know the people that I will be working with because they are friends of mine.

So I think the answer is, I find new people to work with all the time and I am very excited to work with them all. I can’t wait for the next story and challenge. It’s funny [that] people always ask me about my favourite photographs and things like that. I don’t really have favourites unless they are the images that have gotten the most attention by people looking at them. Those are the ones that I love. And same with scientists, it’s going to be the next person I work with.

Tiger at night, India / Photo Credit: Steve Winter

Tiger at night, India / Photo Credit: Steve Winter

OKJ: After so many assignments, what aspect of your storytelling would you like to improve on?

STEVE: Always the journalistic part - The telling of the story. That is vitally important to me to [becoming] a better storyteller. I am really good at what I do best - Taking photographs of these animals that people have seen before but in a way they haven’t seen before.

But being a storyteller is always my ultimate goal and that’s the hardest part of the job. [Because] if you are trying to take pictures of animals that people haven’t seen before, then you have to do the story afterwards. There is hardly enough time in this day and age and funds to do things like that. So I want to see the world in a way where I can help tell the story better, easier and simpler.

Tiger cub in cage after surgery, Sumatra / Photo Credit: Steve Winter

Tiger cub in cage after surgery, Sumatra / Photo Credit: Steve Winter

OKJ: I ask this to every expert who would give a talk to a live audience. Given the varying audience from country to country and the experience that you had over the years, how do you choose the stories to share and prepare for a talk such as National Geographic Live?

STEVE: Well I have very good people that I work with. It’s so funny that here we are back to [talking about] good people. I work with good people in the field and work with good people at National Geographic Live because to be able to captivate people for 70 minutes is a real challenge.

So it is great to work with people that help me to tighten this show, tell great stories and keep people interested for 70 minutes. It’s really quite a feat and challenge and I love it. And here’s another thing, how do you keep children, 3,000 children in 1 theatre, captivated at one time? Now that is a real challenge.

And I have teachers come up to me after one of my talks and saying, “You can hear a pin drop, I couldn’t believe that they stayed quiet for you.” And I’m like, well of course they did, they were interested in what I was talking about. So if I can captivate 3,000 kids for 45 minutes and I do a good job at that, then I am successful.

I had lived an incredible life, I got to do what I wanted to do since I was 8-years-old. It is adventurous and exciting - and I get to share that with the people in the audience and just that is an incredible opportunity.

If I didn’t become successful at what I am doing now, I would want to be in the audience to hear National Geographic photographers. So I am like the people in the audience and I have to be like that to be successful.

Tiger mother and cub / Photo Credit: Steve Winter

Tiger mother and cub / Photo Credit: Steve Winter

OKJ: Another great passion of yours is trying to save big cats and the landscape they call home. Can you explain as to how you developed that passion and its importance towards conservation?

STEVE: It is a great story because I didn’t know anything about wildlife. I also didn’t realise that many [wildlife] photographers just took pretty pictures of the animals.

Being a photojournalist, it is my job to tell a story. And so when I was working with really good people and working at National Geographic, and I just started to tell the story, find people that lived with these animals and found that many wildlife stories in the beginning didn’t include the people that lived with the animals and the problems that we as humans have created for [them].

And so I realised that to be able to tell their story, I needed to do more than just take pictures of the animals. And so when I started doing it, all of a sudden people were asking me about the story I was telling. And I’m like, “Well it is about the story of the animals, doesn’t everybody do this?” And turns out they didn’t. In fact, there used to be photographers that would say, “I don’t do people.”

Well there are no animals in the world that live in a vacuum, they live with us as human beings and we need to tell the whole story. So people reacted to the fact that I was being a storyteller and instead just showing them pretty pictures of animals or just pure natural history.

So when I figured that out, I started to become successful at my career of trying to save big cats, save wildlife of all kinds by telling the whole story and not just taking pictures of the animals.


Steve Winter will be in Singapore on 25 August for the National Geographic Live speaker series. Click here for more information.