The most meaningful photographs are the ones that incite change. Photographer and big cat advocate Steve Winter hopes to inspire conservation efforts through his photographs of tigers, to preserve them in the wild for generations to come.
The tiger is critically endangered with only about 3,890 tigers left in the wild. Habitat loss and retaliatory killings are major factors in the loss of tigers throughout Asia. However, the largest threat comes from poachers who target tigers to sell their “parts” for tiger bone wine and tiger skin furniture to harness the mystical powers of the large cat.
“We have no reason to use parts of an endangered species,” said Winter, “The only way you are going to gain any strength or chi of a tiger is to look one in the eye.”
Winter has spent years photographing tigers throughout Asia. He spends more time with the large cat than any other animal on the face of the earth. Winter discusses his love for tigers and the urgent need to protect this large cat.
What is so fascinating about tigers?
They have this certain majesty about them. When you look into their eyes you can’t help but be in awe and be moved emotionally. And I have been lucky enough to be around them in places where I can see them and then in other places where I could not see them where you could only get pictures with remote cameras.
What are some of the challenges you face when photographing tigers?
We don’t need pretty pictures. Pretty pictures aren’t going to save tigers. We have so many pictures of tigers how are we going to show them in a different light? My goals are to get pictures people haven’t seen before. If we can get something that excites people than that’s good. It’s a positive step towards getting people to not forget about this magnificent species.
Can you describe what it is like to see a tiger in its natural environment in the jungle?
It takes your breath away. Number one it’s their size, their colouring, their stripes. But it’s those eyes. The eyes of the tiger are just piercing eyes that look into us. It’s breath taking when you come around the corner in a forest and you see a tiger or you hear one.
What is the story you want your pictures to tell?
Well, you want [viewers] to have a visceral emotional connection to that photograph. Because in the end these cats are in trouble. I want people to care that there will be tigers in the future. The next generations deserve to have tigers also and they are being threatened for ridiculous, greedy reasons. [The practice of killing them for] tiger bone wine, tiger skin furniture, tiger bone medicine, it’s wrong and it needs to be stopped. And so hopefully they will see something and make them want to know more. How are tigers doing, not well. But I know that we can save them.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Lead Image: A mother rests with her two-month-old in Bandhavgarh National Park, where—contrary to the global trend—managers have built up tiger numbers. Compensation for loss of life caused by cats outside the park gives villagers some consolation. PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE WINTER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE