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Passing on the baton

Passing on the baton

© Steve Winter/National Geographic Creative

June 2017

When it comes to personal accolades, wildlife photojournalist Steve Winter has been there and done that. Not only has he been a National Geographic photographer for 26 years, he’s won BBC Wildlife awards, Picture of the Year awards, and World Press Photo first prize awards – twice over. Now Steve has his eye on a bigger goal: to widen his reach on conservation issues. He opens up to CPN Web Editor Deniz Dirim on how his advocacy, mentoring, and lecture work – along with his photography – is helping to further his message of cherishing the natural world...

© Steve Winter/National Geographic Creative
© Steve Winter/National Geographic Creative

With proper protection and enough prey tigers breed easily. This four-year-old tigress returned to the cave where she was born to have her first litter. The area of Bandhavgarh National Park in India, where she lives, has an abundance of prey and protection. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV with an EF600mm f/4L IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/180sec at f/11, ISO 1600.

Steve Winter is the first to admit he’s “the luckiest man on the face of the earth”. His aspiration to become a National Geographic photographer hatched as an eight-year-old boy growing up in the vast rolling cornfields of Indiana, USA. And after assisting Canon Master Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols for five years, that big dream came true. But now, it’s time to pass the baton. “It’s kind of funky to say this but if you see the circle of life, then you need to have that cyclical aspect within your own working life. I need to give back. Not just in a conservation way but to give back as being a mentor and keep all of this going. We have people who are in the same situation I was. ‘Hey I want to do X, Y or Z. Can you help me?’ I say: ‘Yeah, definitely!’ It’s part of my job. We need to have lives of hope and believe that what we’re doing is going to make a difference. And what I’ve learned throughout my career, in which Nick Nichols mentored me, [is that] I need to be that person; be that spark...”

Even Steve’s own colleagues at National Geographic half-jokingly tease him, inquiring whether – when educating the next generation – he worries for the security of his own precious space as a contributor for the magazine. But Steve’s passion for raising awareness cannot be dampened. “The answer to that is ‘No, I’m a photographer. What photographers are secure?’ It’s the right thing to do! I don’t want somebody who doesn’t have a goal in life to change the world. I want that person who wants to change the world.”

“I don’t want them to already be an established photographer who says ‘Let me see how you set your camera traps!’ because I’ve had that lately... no, I’m not interested. Figure it out on your own; I had to! I didn’t know anything. I remember Nick Nichols’ words of advice were: ‘You’re going to think you got something but you didn’t.’ And that was during the film days. Well, that doesn’t tell me how to do it! That just tells me that a whole roll of film’s gonna be shot, I’m gonna look at it and it’s gonna be blank. That’s exactly what happened but I had to do it on my own. I have people that say, ‘Do you modify your lights?’ and I say, ‘Do you think I modify my lights?’ But, if I find you, and you have the drive and passion and the individual vision that I think will give you a chance to end up at Geographic then you’re the person I want to work with.”

© Steve Winter/National Geographic Creative
© Steve Winter/National Geographic Creative

Tiger cub surgery, Bonda Aceh, Indonesia. The tiger chewed through his original bandage and so they had to clean out the wound again and sew it back up. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens at 16mm; the exposure was 1/5sec at f/14, ISO 800.

Breaking new ground

Steve speaks so highly of his latest protégé, 23-year-old British photographer and filmmaker Bertie Gregory, you wonder who is mentoring who. “I was lucky to be able to work with Bertie. I found him when he had just graduated from university [at age 20]. Bertie is just an exceptional individual and him being so young, it’s great because he’ll reach younger audiences all the way up. He will be someone that brings the natural world to all of us. He’s a great spokesperson.”

When Steve first met Bertie, he was only taking stills... but, as it often goes with youth, all he needed was a gentle push. Steve explains, “I look at reaching people with media, whether still or moving. And they [youth] are interested in the moving image because it reaches many people on the web. So you find, men or women, that are really good stills photographers that also have an interest in video – and I have an interest in them having an interest in video – because we need to reach people about the state of the world in which we live!”

Bertie was the first to bring a non-printed magazine, non-television medium to National Geographic; he created a model for online wildlife programming, a digital series which can be streamed at any time from any location. “Just like Bertie doing [the National Geographic digital series] ‘wild_life with Bertie Gregory’, I saw that he had the interest in it immediately. When I first met him he was still in school at the University of Bristol and I said, ‘Why don’t you do video when we go to do leopards?’ because that’s what we were doing when I first hired him. When you’re looking at eyes on your project as you’re doing a big cat story and you want people to understand the issues that surround this cat, how vulnerable this animal is in our current situation and in its environment, then we want to do stills and we want to do video.”

© Sharon Guynup
© Sharon Guynup

Steve Winter on assignment looking for leopards in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 32mm; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/19, ISO 500.

The social aspect

National Geographic has almost 79 million followers on Instagram. In April 2017, National Geographic’s Editor-in-Chief, Susan Goldberg, shared: “We’re proud that for most of the past two years, National Geographic has ranked number one among brands on social media in the United States. With more than 2.6 billion social engagements, we’re right up there with the NFL, the NBA, and Victoria’s Secret.” Steve is on the same trajectory, with a personal Instagram account @SteveWinterPhoto which boasts a whopping 484,000 followers.

It is mindboggling to hear about the advantages of social media from a photojournalist who embarked on his career in the ’80s. Steve explains, “Now that I have a following, I also get to find out how people feel about things which, in the past, you never knew. You weren’t there when they turned the pages of the magazine and had questions about the individual image. Or you’re not sitting in their living room when they’re watching the television programme you did and getting their feedback. But I like looking at the comments. All of us at Geographic, whether we’re on the main feed or our individual feeds, we love getting feedback! Because [usually] we don’t; we live in a bubble so often, especially when we’re out on the field, and at home we’re still in a bubble because we’re all so busy.”

© Steve Winter/National Geographic Creative
© Steve Winter/National Geographic Creative

Indian elephants, Kaziranga National Park, India. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens at 140mm; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/8, ISO 640.

“Every once in a while, somebody will ask a specific question and it gives you an opportunity to engage with the audience. I still remember the days when we used to have a letter sent to Geographic asking something or thanking us, or something. We’re now getting feedback [immediately], which is fantastic because we know we’re making a difference. People are asking how to help and we’re able to respond. And hopefully, in the future, it’ll be an additional form of income for all of us. We don’t have steady jobs you know. Everybody out there that reads this: we are contributing [freelance] photographers and have been for over 20 years, as far as there being no contracts or staff jobs at National Geographic in photography...”

Being there

When Steve isn’t in the world’s most remote locations, waiting patiently to photograph a big cat, he’s giving talks to whoever will listen. “I would happily give 50 percent of my time to talks. I’m at the end of my first tour and I still want to continue bringing it to people who haven’t seen it and then work on my second tour. This is the other thing – it’s the same thing about what I said about not being there when they turn the pages of the magazine – I love being on stage because you can look at the faces of people in the audience. You have a chance for interaction. You give yourself a chance to be there. A chance to tell your stories to people and you can see the look in their eyes or the smiles on their faces, also the laughs, and you can tell you’re reaching them.”

Steve has been in the game too long and cares too much to lie to himself. He knows that when he’s being published on a National Geographic channel – whether in print, on the web or on television – he’s preaching to the choir. This exercise does not satiate his passion for reaching as many people as humanly possible. “Our biggest goal is to get the people that maybe don’t care. We need to talk to the people that feel ‘Ah yeah, I love taking a walk in the woods and I don’t really know why I love it’ or ‘Oh, I’m not sure I want to get involved’ and those are the people we really want to reach. The ones that are total urban dwellers and they hate seeing a bug on them or they have issues with nature. [At the live talks] you do meet people who say ‘Oh, I’ve never done this before and I absolutely loved it.’ Great! Those are the ones that we really, really love.”

© Steve Winter/National Geographic Creative
© Steve Winter/National Geographic Creative

A camera trap photographs a cougar [known as P22] strolling down a path in Griffith Park, home to the world famous Hollywood sign, Los Angeles, USA. This cougar is studied and monitored by biologists from the National Park Service’s Santa Monica National Recreation Area. To reach the park, which has been his home for the last two years, he had to cross two of the busiest highways in the USA, Highway 101 and the 405. Taken on a Canon EOS 600D with an EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens at 21mm; the exposure was 4 seconds at f/6.7, ISO 1600.

Full circle

Steve Winter’s first big cats story was also National Geographic’s first photographic jaguar coverage – almost 20 years ago. And in December 2017, he will publish a new jaguar story (with images captured in Mexico, Peru and Brazil) in a magazine issue and a television programme for National Geographic. “What I’ve been primarily working on for the last year has been jaguars, which Canon was very helpful on. After going to Mexico and Peru, I went to two locations in the Pantanal of Brazil that I had found 20 years ago when I stumbled across a scientist doing the first jaguar project in this specific location. George Schaller had been in the area in the ‘70s; only visited this specific place, didn’t do any work there. And this location where I was 20 years ago is now the oasis; the protector of jaguars, because there is a very healthy tourist trade. Many of the ranches used to kill jaguars because they felt that every dead cow was the fault of a jaguar. Now there’s so much money in tourism that no one would ever think about doing that.”

At the same time, the December issue on jaguars will be Steve’s last piece with Bertie, who has recently been accepted to an internship at the BBC. For the first time, Steve becomes solemn when speaking about his assistant but it’s not long before he finds a reason to smile. “You know, Bertie’s birthday is the same birthday as my son’s. I’ve spent the last three birthdays with Bertie. I spent so long in my career being away from [my partner and investigative journalist] Sharon Guynup and [my son] Nick. Now he’s older and he’s got his own job, but Sharon and I get to work together which is fantastic because we’re actually doing really great work together. I’m luckier yet as life goes on...”

© Steve Winter/National Geographic Creative
© Steve Winter/National Geographic Creative

Jaguars in a boat, Cancun, Mexico. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark III with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 70mm; the exposure was 1/500sec at f/8, ISO 400.

Steve Winter’s tips for getting involved today!

  • Be active in issues that are close to your heart on social media
  • Find ways that communities can support conservation (e.g. starting a vaccination programme)
  • Support tourism which benefits local communities (e.g. local-run safaris)
  • Fundraise for a specific purpose (e.g. saving one animal) in your local community (e.g. a school)
  • Ensure that the larger organisations you support lead to tangible results
  • Take the time to open up urban dwellers’ minds to the importance of nature
  • Remember that all environmental causes are connected
  • Check out Steve’s favourite organisations: National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative, and African Parks

Biographie: Steve Winter

Steve Winter

Steve Winter has been attacked by rhinos in India, stalked by jaguars in Brazil, charged by an 11-foot grizzly bear in Siberia, and trapped in quicksand in the world's largest tiger reserve in Myanmar. He’s a multi-award winning wildlife photojournalist and won first prize in the nature story category from World Press Photo in 2008 and 2014. He lectures globally on photography and conservation issues and has been interviewed on CBS Nightly News, 60 Minutes, NPR, BBC, and CNN. In November 2013, National Geographic published Steve’s photography book ‘Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Cat’, with text written by his partner, environmental journalist Sharon Guynup. Most recently they were both finalists in the Society of Professional Journalists’ The Deadline Club Awards for Magazine Investigative Journalism for the Tiger Temple story, which partner Sharon wrote with the accompanying video shot by Steve (and co-produced with Sharon). The story was an exclusive on @NatGeo's Wildlife Watch blog.


Demand for costly leopard pelts worn in Christian-Zulu rituals drives poaching. Taken on a Canon <br />EOS-1D X with an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 75mm; the exposure was 1/500sec at f/11, ISO 400.