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Interview: Steve Winter

Winter is coming. Not the Starks but the Nat Geo photog – he tells us about the big cats he loves shooting

Photo: Steve Winter

He’s been photographing cats way before they took over the internet – but Steve Winter confesses to being a ‘dog lover’ at home. It might be a case of leaving work at work. Winter has been on assignment for National Geographic for 25 years, braving extreme conditions to snap shots of jaguars, tigers and other big cats.

This month, Winter’s in town for the National Geographic Live sessions. He’s giving a talk, entitled ‘My Nine Lives’, and sharing his tales from off the beaten path, like when he was being charged at by rhinos or getting trapped in quicksand. Y’know, the usual work woes. We put on our field hat and had a chat with the man.

'If we save big cats, we can save ourselves.'

What are the challenges you face when photographing big cats?
These cats are wild, so they can be highly unpredictable. You can be camping for months to capture that one perfect shot. Wild animals can be dangerous, and you need to work with local people who know the area and animals. I was trying to capture tigers in India once, and I got charged by a rhino. We were in an anti-poaching patrol, riding on elephants, when we came across a highly territorial rhino. It chased us for over 400m, and bit the elephant’s trunk! I went flying, just managing to hold onto a bit of cloth. I thought I was going to die – and I still had another five weeks in the field.

What drives you back to the field to photograph these cats?
If we save big cats, we can save ourselves. The forests in which they live are the lungs of the world and provide 75 percent of the freshwater we need to live. 

Do you have a favourite big cat?
I have no favourites – each cat is unique. Though, I must say after spending so much time with the tiger, I do love it! At work, I’m a big cat guy. At home, I’m a dog lover.

When you’ve returned home after a long shoot, what do you do to chill out? 
Spend time with my family. I love HBO and the BBC – we’re currently enjoying Homeland, Orange is the New Black and Game of Thrones. This winter [in New Jersey] has been pretty cold, so we’ve had time to catch up on our favourites.