National Geographic Photographer Steve Winter on How a Turtle Changed His Life

National Geographic photographer Steve Winter his close calls, memorable moments, and conservation efforts at Mesa Arts Center on October 15.
National Geographic photographer Steve Winter his close calls, memorable moments, and conservation efforts at Mesa Arts Center on October 15.
Sharon Guynup

After you've been charged by a rhino while riding an elephant and come face to face with some of the world's largest cats in the wild, speaking in front of a packed auditorium must seem run-of-the-mill.

At least, that's how we imagine National Geographic photographer Steve Winter will feel when he takes the stage Wednesday, October 15, as part of the eighth season of National Geographic Live at Mesa Arts Center.

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Coming back to the Valley for this lecture will be a homecoming of sorts for Winter. The award-winning photographer called Tempe home about 30 years ago. He worked at a restaurant near Arizona State University's main campus and learned to rock climb in Prescott. He says he hopes he'll have more time in the city the next time he visits so he can return to some of his old favorite spots and see how much the city has changed.

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It was back in his actual home state of Indiana where Winter began thumbing through the pages of National Geographic, Life magazine, and, later after he moved to California, Arizona Highways. The images of people and places he'd never seen before grabbed him. He fell in love.

"I was more touched emotionally by the black and white pictures I would see in Life magazine about people's lives," Winter says. "That's what affected me."

From then on, there was no other option besides photography for Winter. Growing up to become the person who created those gripping images that captured him as a child was his only dream and, as he puts it, was also the only thing he was good at.

But it wasn't until about 27 years after his dad gave him his first camera that Winter discovered his love for photographing animals. It had all been social documentation, photographing people and cultures all over the world, before Winter was sent on assignment to follow a group of conservation scientists in Costa Rica.

Winter says his life took a 180 because of a turtle.

When he arrived in Costa Rica, Winter learned that he would have the opportunity to travel to a beach covered in wild turtles laying eggs, and he started to panic.

"I was very worried," he says. "'How am I going to get a picture of a turtle?' But it's just the same way you get a picture of a person."

Winter's passion for photographing wildlife, or natural history photography, was ignited by experiencing nature in a way he never had before during that trip to Costa Rica. But it was the passion of the scientists he was working with that turned him on to conservation.

 

Winter hopes this photo of the cougar P22 in Griffith Park near Los Angeles will spur on discussions about saving the wildlife in the area.
Winter hopes this photo of the cougar P22 in Griffith Park near Los Angeles will spur on discussions about saving the wildlife in the area.
Steve Winter

Those conservation efforts have become what Winter is most proud of.

"I was so drawn to that passion and being able to see change begin and change occur because of these stories I've worked on," he says. "Having the conversation started from government down to local people. "

Of course, walking into an Apple store and seeing a photo you took as the background on all of the products is pretty cool, too, which Winter says has happened.

But that and any other perks that come with being a National Geographic photographer are secondary to seeing actual change come from the photographic stories Winter tells and creating an emotional connection between creatures in the wild and people who have never seen them before.

Winter is currently hoping that his photo of a cougar, known as P22, under the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles will help bring about the construction of a way for wildlife to cross the city's congested freeways, specifically over the Hollywood Freeway from Griffith Park, P22's home.

Winter says he focuses on the big predators because if you save their habitat, you save everything else down the food chain below them, all the way to the forest and watersheds.

But Winter says he appreciates all types of photography, even Instagram feeds. While he says he doesn't care about the latte you drank or what you had for dinner last night, he thinks everyday people photographing their family and friends using whatever means they have is a good thing. He says it's getting people to be aware of their surroundings and looking at the composition of photographs.

"Guess what. That's how I started out," Winter says. "When I give these talks, it's like I'm talking to someone that's like me."

Who knows? Maybe Winter will inspire the next great natural history photographer during his talk at Mesa Arts Center on October 15.

The National Geographic Live series kicks off with "On the Trail of Big Cats: Tiger, Cougars, and Snow Leopards" at Mesa Arts Center Wednesday, October 15, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $26 to $40 for adults, are $20 for students, and can be purchased by calling 480-644-6500 or visiting www.mesaartscenter.com.

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