Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic
Photograph by Steve Winter
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I have wanted to be a photographer for National Geographic magazine since I was eight years old. I remember looking at the photos in the magazine and daydreaming about visiting exotic places around the world—the fascinating people that I saw pictured in those pages.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I learned photography from my father when I was growing up—the basics of composition, light, color—and we had a darkroom in the basement. In college, I studied photography and fine arts. But my real learning experiences came while working as a photo assistant. I was fortunate to assist Nick Nichols for five years, an experience that shaped my career. Though I am very biased, I believe that Nick is the best at what he does, hands down.
When I first joined Black Star photo agency, I worked as a photojournalist photographing people, culture and news. But a few years later, I got an assignment to document a collaborative project where Costa Rica's National Biodiversity Institute and Merck Pharma were attempting to find new pharmaceutical compounds in rain forest plants and insects. My partner was photographing various biologists' research. Meeting and working with scientists—witnessing their dedication and passion while they studied everything from squirrel monkeys and ants in the high canopy to butterflies, bellbirds, and sea turtles was a life-changing experience. At the same time, I fell in love with the plethora of life in the jungle, and was so moved that I turned my career in the direction of natural history photography.
Today I consider myself a conservation photographer; in this role, I combine images of animals and their habitat with the scientists that study and try to protect them, the local people that must coexist with them—and the threats that they face. I didn't photograph an animal until I was in my early 30s.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to photography?
We need to show the readers of National Geographic around the world the scope of pressing environmental issues and how they affect both wildlife and humans. But what inspired me from the beginning were the passionate scientists that dedicate their lives to making a difference. One researcher I've worked with over the years, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, has amazed me by finding solutions to complex conservation issues facing big cats—at a time when some species were in deep decline, losing habitat rapidly, widely poached, their prey hunted out. Men and women like this inspire me, as well as the local people I live and work with on assignment, from biologists to local people that I spend months walking remote jungles or mountains with, often living as a guest in their homes. I am fascinated by both the drastic differences and the similarities of our lives, thoughts, human experience. The lesson for me has been that we are all connected: nature, culture, and our modern, technological world.
The main reason I do what I do: because we need to inspire the next generation.
What's a normal day like for you?
My job is to get images that we may have not seen before, and often that requires working in extreme situations. In the field, my days are incredibly long. Seven days a week, I get up in the dark and come back in the dark. I spend the day looking for both the animal I'm photographing and any other animals that may appear. The last few years, that has included tigers, jaguars, elephants, Indian rhinos, and more. To photograph many of these animals, I set up camera traps on trails where these animals walk. Some days can be very physically demanding, walking in steep mountains at high altitude or through thick, wet jungles. And it can be dangerous. I'm always on the lookout for dangerous animals, such as aggressive elephants or tigers in India or the poisonous fer-de-lance snake in Latin America.
After a story is published, it's important to further publicize the issues threatening an animal or ecosystem's continued existence by doing lectures and other media events.
Do you have a hero?
I have many heroes. With each story I do, I find new ones, many of whom are ordinary people who fight for their homes, families and environments.
The man who first influenced me in the natural history field was Dr. George Schaller, who is widely considered the world's preeminent field biologist, having done the first solid field research on jaguars, pandas, mountain gorillas, and many other species. He continues to amaze and inspire me. Dr. Rabinowitz is also on that list: he's the one who showed me that often, to make conservation effective, problems may need to be approached in a completely novel way.
Other heroes for me include people who push their own boundaries and that of the organizations they work for. Chris Johns is one of those individuals who did that as a photographer in the field—and still does that as our Editor in Chief. We dedicate our lives and careers, with much time spent away from home, to bring the world to the readers of National Geographic—and we are lucky to have the support of a man who continues to make the magazine more relevant and vital in this ever changing media environment.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
That is a tough question; you expend so much energy, learn so much, and meet so many great people. I met amazingly friendly people in Myanmar working on an Irrawaddy River story, many of whom had never seen an outsider—or hadn't since World War II. Culturally, technologically, it felt like the country had been frozen in time.
My snow leopard story was very challenging physically, working at altitudes up to 17,000 feet in extreme cold (-30º to -40ºF at night)—and attempting to get pictures of an elusive animal that you never see.
What are your other passions?
Trying to save big cats and the landscape they call home is my focus. I spend a lot of time in the field getting difficult images. My work as media director for Panthera, a nonprofit dedicated to saving wild cats, helps bring these images and the work of their scientists and field staff to the world.
Another passion is to work on projects with my wife, who is now a writer. We just produced a cover story on attempts to create a jaguar corridor throughout their range, from Mexico to Argentina, for Smithsonian.
What do you do in your free time?
When I'm not traveling, I try to find time to relax and enjoy time at home. I've recently started cycling—and want to learn to surf, a lifelong goal!
If you could have people do one thing to help save wildlife, what would it be?
I'd ask people to get involved in the conservation issues they feel close to, anything from protecting land in their communities to saving tigers, placing pressure on decision makers to address climate change or pollution issues—the key is passion. There are many ways to participate, to help, close to home or on the web. For those that can donate money, I'd warn them to make sure that money actually goes to the organizations with boots on the ground—to scientists and local people that are making a real difference.
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