“If I win, the tiger wins,” photographer Steve Winter said at his talk earlier this week at the Explorers Club in New York. For two decades he’s traced tigers through the forests of Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and India, on a quest for images that would stop people in their tracks, to spend more than a passing second with, and hopefully inspire passion about conservation.
Last November, over 100 of his tiger photographs were published in Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat. The book, which he created with journalist Sharon Guynup who interviewed people involved in the whole spectrum of conservation, is based on three National Geographic stories that look at the life and plight of tigers. The talk at the Explorers Club had both Winter and Guynup discussing the book, as well as the Tigers Forever initiative led by the New York-based Panthera wild cat conservation organization in collaboration with National Geographic.
It’s no secret that the number of the endangered tigers in the wild has greatly diminished — going from about 100,000 a century ago to 3,200 now. Poaching for their fur, or to make traditional medicines like the popular tiger bone wine — or even just poisoning a tiger because it killed your livestock — along with diminishing forests, has all tightened the trap of endangerment. But it’s much different to read those numbers and know those things, than to see images of these last survivors, and not just stately portraits.
As Winter writes in the book: “My goal throughout my career has been not only to capture the beauty, intelligence, and behaviors of animals I photograph, but also to tell their story. This includes the humans that impact their lives and the ecosystems they live in. I try to create images that move people emotionally, bring international attention to the plight of wildlife, and ultimately, help protect my wild subjects.”
This idea is what sets Winter’s photographs apart from a lot of nature photography — National Geographic spreads included — that is often a stunning landscape or wildlife capture, but has the animals as something elevated and almost untouchable. For example, in this December’s issue of National Geographic, Winter has a photograph of a cougar at the Hollywood sign in California. Yet the tigers in Winter’s book, big-clawed and long-toothed as they may be, have a vulnerability to them. One of the most powerful images in the book is of a young male cub that lost its right paw in a snare trap, and still snarls with teeth bared from the corner of its cage.
The photographs are beautiful, sharp, and have an immediacy; in many of the shots, the tiger’s eyes focus right on you. The fact that they took years of swaying rides on elephants, setting up infrared camera traps in humid jungles (the traps have become something of Winter’s speciality with his shy big cat-focused career), trying out a robotic camera on wheels, and visiting researchers, park guards, villagers, and mahouts, is not uncommon for nature photography, although still staggering. But there’s very much an insider’s perspective — a “tiger’s eye view” as Winter put it in his Explorers Club talk — that isn’t just about the majestic wild, that instead has an immediacy. Yet whether or not these photographs can cause people to care, to take an active, personal step in supporting conservation, is still a tall order, But it’s encouraging that publications like National Geographic are still supporting these longterm investigations into the survival of elusive animals, and our existence with them.
Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat by Steve Winter with Sharon Guynup was published by National Geographic Books in November 2013. Winter and Guynup spoke at the Explorers Club (46 East 70th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) in New York on January 6.