National Geographic Photographer Steve Winter Visits MSU

Feb 23, 2012

National Geographic photographer Steve Winter visited Michigan State University this week to talk about shooting pictures for the world's leading nature and photography magazine.

Among his stops was a photography class, where he showed some of his pictures and videos.

Large cats have become his passion. His most recent story was about tigers.

Steve Winter told WKAR's Scott Pohl that after 20 years, most of his National Geographic stories come from his own ideas. Lots of research and legwork has to be done before he can go into the field.

STEVE WINTER: We have to do a budget. I’ve just been working on this last week for my next story, on mountain lions. And so, there’s a lot involved before we actually walk out the door. I’ve never worked in the United States in 20 years until right now, on mountain lions, but working in certain countries, it can take a year to get permits to do what I need to do. That’s part of my job, with the help of (National) Geographic. Their brand and their letterhead opens a lot of doors! That’s good!

SCOTT POHL: I find it interesting that you spend months and years on a project, and then it’s in National Geographic for one month. Now, I realize that it lives on in perpetuity, but for the most part, it only gets attention for one month.

WINTER: That’s just the way it is. It’s one of the reasons we love the web. I was just talking to the class here about the importance of additional content that we’re looking for at National Geographic, because we have a large presence on the iPad now, and it’s interactive, where there’s a lot of video content, and the maps are interactive. It’s just absolutely amazing, and it’s a large educational tool worldwide. We’re the #1 website for animals in the world. This does live on.

POHL: I stood here for part of your work with this class and saw some of the stories you discussed, and the word danger kept popping into my mind. People may not realize the degree to which you can minimize the danger, and yet there are threats that your readers don’t think about when they’re looking at your photographs.

WINTER: Danger’s an important aspect. Fear is important. Fear is an important thing in nature, because if we are fearful, it’s one of the reasons I’m still sitting here. I do a lot of things that people would think are pretty crazy and they wouldn’t even think about doing, but one thing I have to say is that you end up putting trust in the people that you work with. If I don’t have trust, I don’t do it. I learned it very young in life, when I used to be a rock climber, ice climber, I needed to learn and then trust the guys that were on the front of the rope and the back of the rope.

I work with a lot of local people in these remote locations around the world. They know how to stay alive. They help me stay alive. The park guards that I work with, also. I have to have my faith in them. If I didn’t, I just wouldn’t do it. I’d stop and go find somebody that I could trust, but it’s all based on trust and having that healthy amount of fear, but the end result is I have to come back with the image or the video. And so, I put myself into dangerous situations to get that.

The biggest problem that we have is not with the large animals; the biggest problems I have are microscopic. We get a lot of amoebas and parasites and worms. I had worms under my skin last year, three times. They’re sometimes a nuisances, and sometimes make you violently ill.

POHL: One final thing I would note is the irony of you discussing how you need dozens of bags of equipment for some of your stories, and here I am talking with you for this story, and I whipped out my telephone and took a few pictures of you in a classroom with my telephone.

WINTER: Well, you know, the iPhone is great. I just bought two new ones because it’s got a good camera, and as far as I’m concerned, the easier the better, because it’s getting the image. I don’t want to carry a camera around with me all the time! If it makes it smaller, then I’m able to capture something because it happens to be in my pocket, then I love it!