Big cat specialist Steve Winter’s photographic journey began with an Instamatic at the age of seven. The visual raconteur speaks to Amitha Ameen about his love for big cats, challenges on the field, life-threatening experiences, and the need for wildlife conservation through photography. By Amitha Ameen
1. Do you have a favourite among the big cats?
The tiger is my number one, because I have spent more time photographing tigers than any other cat. I feel they have a magical quality and majesty that perhaps only one other cat can match—the jaguar. The tiger is in a class by itself, and it reminds you of the importance of planet Earth. I also feel they connect with humans in a way other cats cannot do.
2. How do you approach a new location or species?
When I begin a new project, I spend two and a half months (around 10 weeks) in the area. You need to get to know the people you are working with, be it scientists or locals. And then, you need to get to know the animals in the area, their behaviour, the places they frequent, and the habitat. If it is a national park, you need to talk to its director, sensitise him/her to the problems that the animals face, and discuss how it is a story that needs to be told. Sometimes, the reality on the ground can be very different from the story you expected to tell.
3. Which was your longest and most challenging assignment?
The feature I did on tigers for an international magazine was the longest. I went to Sumatra in Indonesia, because scientists are of the opinion that Sumatran tigers are approaching extinction. Add to this Kaziranga, Corbett, and Ranthambore [in India], and it turned into a long project. The planning was also immense because there were a lot of permits involved. When I began working on snow leopards too, I had a permit for Pakistan and India at the same time.
4. Do you have a wish-list of frames, or is there a species that has eluded you so far?
I wanted to photograph Siberian tigers but could not, because 60 per cent of their population got wiped out due to canine distemper. I intend to do that between 2021 and 2022. The point is to keep doing projects that have a tangible result. You are not just doing a story to showcase the species—it should also provide the government enough information to act. The Asiatic lions in Gir are also on my list, because they are a crucial piece in my big cat puzzle.
5. Have you had any scary encounters or life-threatening experiences on the field?
I have faced life-threatening situations many times. I have been chased by angry rhinos in the western part of Kaziranga National Park, an area that not many know of, as tourists are not allowed there. The rhinos in Kaziranga are very territorial because there are too many of them. Locals informed me that some of these animals need to be relocated. During my first story in the United States, I went into an anaphylactic shock, and if this had happened to me in the middle of nowhere in Burma, I would have been a dead man!
6. What is your favourite thing about India’s forests and wildlife?
7. What part can photography play in forest and wildlife conservation?
Photographs can tell stories and bring people closer. By telling the story of the destruction of natural habitats of animals, we create empathy. You cannot have an intact ecosystem without the animals that live within it. If you save the top predator in any ecosystem, you save everything else. Many ecosystems fall apart without the predators.
8. What photography gear are you currently using?
I use three different cameras— Canon, Sony, and Nikon. I put a wide-angle camera trap to compose the first frame. But I don’t believe in going in blind, as it is a waste of time. You might get a one-dimensional image of an animal coming out of the thick forest but that does nothing more than record the animal. It lacks a cause or a story.