Behind the Lens with Steve Winter
The conservation photographer shares the logistics and creative outcome of a National Geographic assignment, including 36 bags of gear, a staff of eight, and 150,000 images.
The photographic community is incredibly diverse, made up of photographers who shoot from the sky to the sea and everywhere in between. Each month we look at a different segment of the industry, interviewing top professional photographers about life, their careers, and what sets their piece of the photographic industry apart from the rest.
This month we focus on Steve Winter, 52, a contributing photographer at National Geographic magazine since 1991. Focusing on conservation photography, Winter’s subjects have included volcanoes in Iceland, grizzly bears in Russia, and the natural history of Cuba. The New Jersey-based photographer recently traveled to India, documenting snow leopards for his most recent National Geographic article. While on a layover in Delhi, India, Winter took some time to share a glimpse of his life after spending three months photographing in the field.
Q. What led to your career at National Geographic? I read that, as a child, you aspired to travel the world as a photographer for National Geographic; did you ever consider that to be an attainable goal?
I remember as a child looking at the National Geographic magazines we had in my home south of Fort Wayne, Indiana. They took me to places far away from Midwest cornfields. I was totally fascinated by the cultures that I discovered on those pages. And when I was young, I was obsessed with wildlife shows: I remember getting all choked up even hearing the intro music before a National Geographic TV show.
I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer since I was eight years old. My parents always led me to believe that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to, and I took that to heart. I felt I could realize my dream. One of the things I try to impart to students during lectures is that dreams are not just something you experience at night while sleeping: they are your lifeblood — focus, be passionate and don’t give up.
Upon graduating from the Academy of Art in San Francisco, one of my photographic idols, Michael “Nick” Nichols, offered me a job as his assistant — then my education really began — also a long-term friendship that has made a large impact on my career.
I got my shot at doing my first story for National Geographic magazine partly because I had been working for National Geographic World magazine and doing short pieces for the “front of the book” for National Geographic magazine. To work for National Geographic magazine, I showed my portfolio to the Deputy Director of Photography Susan A. Smith (to whom I owe so much) and the then the Director of Photography, Tom Kennedy. I proposed a story on the Quetzal and we worked out a deal where the first trip was a “prove you can do it trip.” I was successful and learned so much about working in the field with biologists and the patience it takes shooting natural history. I then received a contract for the whole story and with the help on my photo editor, Kathy Moran, and so many others, my career at National Geographic magazine began.
Q. What projects have you worked on for National Geographic? Where have you traveled? Have you published recent work in other publications?
I first set foot into the rainforest in 1992. It was a life-changing experience. I had a corporate shoot in Costa Rica through my then-agency, Black Star. My job was to document the collaboration between Merck Pharmaceuticals and the National Biodiversity Institute (of Costa Rica) in their quest to find new medicinal compounds in tropical forests. As Merck’s research director told me, “We ran out of ideas and had to move back to Mother Nature.”
I went down with my family and remember walking into the forest for the first time one morning with my wife, Sharon Guynup. As the darkness enveloped us, we realized that we knew nothing about this world, where to see animals or how to be safe there. So we went back to the research facility and talked to the scientists who knew the forest like their own backyard, and spent the next days out with them.
I was completely awed. That experience changed the direction of my work from social documentary to natural history and conservation. During that trip, Sharon, who is a writer and photographer, was doing seven stories for Science magazine. One of her subjects was Dr. George Powell, an ornithologist who was studying bellbirds and quetzals at the time. After I got home, he sent information on a great place in Guatemala to photograph quetzals. This became my first story for National Geographic magazine.
My earlier work focused on people and culture. When I was 20 years old, I circled the globe for eight months shooting pictures. I also spent a lot of time in Mexico, and lived for nine months in Haiti working on stories, including a piece on Mother Teresa’s Home for the Sick and Dying, another on the slums surrounding Port-au-Prince, and covered the many coups that erupted during that period.
For National Geographic, I traveled to Iceland to photograph a volcano erupting from a glacier, shot the world’s first wild jaguar story in locations from Arizona to Brazil, and did a story on the creation of the world’s largest tiger reserve in Myanmar. I also produced stories on the grizzly bears of Kamchatka in the Russian Far East, Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, and the natural history of Cuba, which I like to call the Galapagos of the north. I tend to propose stories that have never been done before. I like the challenge and they are always full of adventure.
My last shoot for another publication was in 2000; since then, my magazine work has been exclusively for National Geographic.
Q. Having worked for National Geographic since 1991, I’m sure you’ve racked up your fair share in travel expenses. What type of budget do you have to work on projects for the magazine? How long do you typically spend in the field? Has this changed in recent years?
Budgets vary from story to story. It depends on how remote the location is, what type of expedition travel is needed, and how elusive or difficult the subject is. Sometimes I use elephants for months at a time to carry all the gear and equipment — which can be over 30 bags and cases. Other times we need horses, jeeps or porters. Elephants are a lot cheaper than jeeps! In Kamchatka, we had tens of thousands of dollars in helicopter transport fees because there are no roads across much of the peninsula. To cover that, we received a grant through the National Geographic Expeditions Council.
You need to be more creative on budgets nowadays, as things are getting tighter in all areas of print. But I always try to make sure I have enough expense money to cover both costs and contingencies. I need to bring back National Geographic-quality images no matter what, even if Mother Nature decides not to cooperate weather-wise or animals have moved from where they were in years past.
I usually spend three to five months shooting a story over at least two trips, with a midway show in between for the editors to help focus on what I still need. Sometimes I spend extra, unpaid time on a story to get the job done.
Q. How much of your time is spent shooting? What else is involved in making each assignment a success? Can anyone with financial backing handle spending weeks photographing tigers in the jungles of Myanmar?
When I’m in the field, I work seven days a week, usually from dawn to dark, sometimes with a break in the middle of the day when the light is bad. But before I’m out the door, I do extensive research from home. Since I don’t have a background in science, I work closely with biologists to learn everything I can about the species I’m working on, its habitat and the survival issues it faces in the world. Without the knowledge, expertise and passion of the experts I work with, I cannot successfully produce these stories.
One of the first things we need to do after a story is approved by the editors is to obtain the permission and permits needed to work in the country or countries where we need to shoot. This can take months and sometimes requires a huge amount of bureaucratic wrangling to gain access to remote wild lands. Some places are impossible to work in without the assistance of a local “fixer”. Sometimes you need diplomatic aid: I could not have produced my Irrawaddy River story without the gracious assistance of a then-Undersecretary General at the United Nations. Seven different times, government officials told me I had to return to Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma), and couldn’t continue shooting in the country, but with an email or phone call to the UN, I was allowed to proceed. Without National Geographic’s clout and key government contacts, it would be impossible to shoot in some places.
Another important factor in producing these stories is packing — both gear and photo equipment. When I’m in the field, it’s often impossible to replace damaged equipment, so I must have backups for everything. I’m especially careful about backing up my digital files on at least three hard drives (my current story has a total of 1.5TB of photo files). But other gear can include anything from tents, mosquito nets, and a gas-powered generator to cold weather gear, antivenin for snakebites, or a machete to hack through the jungle. I also bring a serious medical kit on every assignment.
Q. What challenges do you face in the field? Any crazy misadventures?
The list of challenges in the field is long and diverse. Keeping yourself and the folks helping you alive and healthy tops the list. People always ask me about attacks from animals I’ve photographed — like tigers, rhinos, elephants, jaguars, bears — but I always say that the most dangerous creatures are the microscopic variety. Although I’ve been charged by animals, so scared I could barely breathe with my heart pounding so hard I thought it would explode, I’ve never been hurt. But I have had malaria, Dengue fever, parasites, worms, amoebic dysentery, and various unexplained illnesses.
That said, many of my stories bring me in close proximity to dangerous animals. In some places, I’ve been required to bring along an armed park guard to help keep me alive in case of an attack. It’s important to learn what you need to do — or not do — to avoid life and death situations, though obviously this is not always possible. But an animal rarely wants to attack you unless it is a female with young that feels threatened or an animal with food that is protecting their meal. Surprising an animal is also a good way to end up in a dicey situation.
One of the scariest things that ever happened to me was when I fell in quicksand in Myanmar’s Hukuang Valley, and quickly sank chest-deep. The Lisu hunters that were with me just stood there and laughed awhile before they decided to pull me out.
On another trip to Myanmar, I flew up north in a military helicopter that almost crashed into a cliff. The pilot then dropped our team off in a tiny village in the high peaks of the Hkakabo Razi mountains — and we spent the next three days trekking from dawn until dusk to reach our destination.
Q. I read on your blog that you brought 36 bags on your recent trip to India for your story on snow leopards. How do you manage with so much gear? Do you bring assistants along to help with the load and logistics?
Handling the gear is one of the worst parts of the job — packing, getting it on airplanes and out into the field is a monumental task.
I have always used local guides and assistants that I would train, but now I bring a U.S. assistant to handle my digital files and equipment. I now have an incredible assistant, Gabe DeLoach, who makes my time in the field so much easier than in the past, freeing me up to concentrate on the images. But I still use local people as much as possible. They know the country and customs, help me with logistics, and are key to making each story a success.
Q. What was your experience like photographing snow leopards? Was that the most recent story you worked on? What do you currently have in the works?
Outfitting a winter camp for my snow leopard story in the Ladahk region of Kashmir meant that I left Newark airport with 36 bags. The folks at Continental Airlines know me well. To get equipment into another country sometimes requires approval from local customs officials. I hadn’t received the customs forms in time for my flight. The Indian Embassy advised me to wait until the next day to leave, but it would have cost me $2,000 to change my and my assistant’s tickets. I already had permits to work in India, so I left. After 2 1/2 hours at the customs office in the Delhi airport, it looked like they weren’t going let me bring my gear into the country. Their concern was that I would sell the equipment in India, but in fact the equipment is mostly owned by National Geographic magazine. Luckily I had the cell phone number of the Indian Consul General’s office in New York. I called, he answered and told me to put the customs guy on the phone — who eventually let me in the country after I filled out volumes of paperwork. I will never forget him showing me a customs regulations manual the size of a phonebook, saying, “Why should we have these laws if I am not supposed to follow them?”
The story on snow leopards was physically the hardest story I have ever produced. Given that I am primarily a jungle guy, working at high altitudes while was a big shock to the system. I camped out in Hemis National Park in the Indian Himalayas for four months during the winter. It took 3 days with 20 packhorses making continuous trips to ferry us and our gear to our campsite in the park. At night, the temperature dipped to 30 to 40 below zero. Every day we climbed to between 15,000 and 17,000 feet, up and down mountains to place remote cameras.
I had a great team from the Kashmiri town of Leh who worked for snow leopard preservation organizations, plus a cook, and an assistant, Emilene Ostiland, who had been the coordinator for my editor Kathy Moran — eight people in all.
Luckily, the cats are habitual animals that tend to walk the same trails and mark their territory in the same places every week or two. Some of them were disturbed by the camera sound or flashes, but I had two males who didn’t seem to care at all about the sound of the camera. So I “mined” the trails they walked on during the winter with [camera] traps placed in areas that made good compositions, and was able to get incredible images of them. I see these images as gifts: the snow leopard had never before been photographed except by scientific camera trapping. And I was lucky: in 2007, the weather was good for the camera traps. The next year, they had three feet of snow, which would have made it impossible. All in all, the story was blessed from the beginning when I saw two snow leopards within the first 24 hours.
I just completed a story on Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India, home to the largest remaining population of Indian rhinos, as well as the highest density of tigers and the largest population of Asian elephants left in the world.
Q. Do you have much downtime in between assignments to spend time with family and friends? Do you have a family of your own? Is it difficult for them to adjust after you return from several months in the field?
Time away from my family — my wife, Sharon, and stepson, Nick — is the hardest part of the job. With the advent of satellite phones things got a lot better. I try to call twice a day. To keep a relationship going you need to be involved with what’s happening at home. It also helps ground me during lonely times in the field — I treasure the calls.
Coming home can be tough, readjusting to life after extended time in a remote corner of the world. It’s an adjustment for my family, too: they’ve gotten used to a routine without me. Over the years, it’s gotten easier, but every trip is different. And time between assignments can be six weeks — or six months.
Q. Your colleague Brian Skerry shared the advantages of shooting with digital cameras in a recent Behind the Lens Q&A. Do you shoot digital as well or do you prefer to stick with film? What cameras and lenses do you shoot with in the field? How many images do you typically come back with?
I could not do what I do as successfully without digital cameras. Being able to review the day’s take and knowing what you have and what you need to shoot has completely altered how I work — and has taken off some of the pressure. For camera traps, digital is indispensable: with film, the only way I knew if I had anything was to get the film to the capital, DHL or FedEx it back to National Geographic magazine, and wait to hear the results. Now we download files every night, I import them into Apple’s Aperture software and within minutes I see the images. If there are technical problems with the trap or the flashes, I can fix them the next day. So I love digital.
I use Canon EOS 1D Mark III cameras and a variety of lenses from 16mm to 1200 mm. I have two Mac laptop computers and use Aperture 2.0 which has dramatically changed my life for the better — it’s so quick and efficient it’s like having another assistant inside your computer.
There is no typical number of photos from an assignment. I produced about 150,000 images in Kaziranga. On others, especially when I was still shooting film, I sometimes shot half or a quarter as many.
Q. Many photographers consider a position at National Geographic to be the ultimate photography job. What would you recommend to someone who aspires to join the ranks of National Geographic photographers?
National Geographic photographic is a family — and I feel very fortunate to be a part of this family and to work for the best magazine in the world. It is wonderful to have editors, coordinators and other National Geographic magazine photographers as close friends and colleagues, working as a team to produce the most comprehensive coverage from around the globe. I look at each story as a way to do better than the last time. I compete against myself.
Learning to tell a story in photographs is the best way to work towards a career at National Geographic magazine. Many of us started at newspapers and magazines where you get a great foundation in storytelling. If working for National Geographic is your dream, work hard, spend time looking at pictures by the photographers you most respect. Go out and shoot stories that you’re passionate about — and learn to edit your work down to just the very best images.
Read other interviews from the Behind the Lens series
• June 2008: Robert Hanashiro
• April 2008: Preston Gannaway
• March 2008: John Moore
• February 2008: Martin Schoeller
• January 2008: Brian Skerry
• December 2007: Jasin Boland
• November 2007: Norm Barker
• October 2007: Cameron Davidson