Steve Winter is living the life he could only dream of as a little boy.
An Indiana native, Winter, 62, imagined a career full of travel and new sights. He just never thought of the animals he would encounter.
As a contributing photographer for National Geographic, animals are precisely the reason Winter has the opportunity to see the world. His job has taken him from Latin American rain forests to parks across Africa photographing big cats.
On July 12, he’ll come to the Paramount Theatre to share tales from his time in the wild during his National Geographic presentation, “On the Trail of Big Cats: Tigers, Cougars, and Snow Leopards.”
The event, sponsored by The Gazette, is part of the National Geographic Live series, which brings in top photographers to enlighten audiences with their stories from the field.
Winter will take audience members from the start of his timeline and how he became the “Big Cat Guy” at National Geographic, to what it is actually like to work in the wild.
Winter’s father, an amateur photographer, gave Winter his first camera at age 7. Whether he asked for the camera or it was just given to him, he doesn’t recall, but he said his dad ended up being one of his greatest teachers early on in life.
“I remember wanting to use his camera but he didn’t want me to,” he said. So he started with a Kodak and worked his way up to other cameras.
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From the Midwest, he went to San Francisco for college at age 19. He also picked up a job at a local photo store, Photographer’s Supply. An emerging wildlife photographer, Michael Nichols, who later became a staff photographer at National Geographic, took Winter under his wing as an assistant.
“I learned about this business and a whole lot about the mechanics of photography that were beyond what I had learned either as a student of my father’s or in school — really a lot of storytelling,” he said.
He told stories through photojournalist jobs after college, but it was a trip to Costa Rica early on in his time at National Geographic that changed his life. His assignment was to go to the rain forest to cover a pharmaceutical company searching for drugs there. He said he worked with passionate, dedicated scientists who worked on ants and other insects to birds and big cats.
“I was blown away by the jungle and just the profusion of life,” he said. “It was just absolutely mind-blowing. Growing up around Indiana, we were around corn, soybeans, cows and pigs. And we saw deer, squirrels and raccoons, but nothing else.”
His life also changed the first time he was visited by a jaguar on his first animal story — but Winter plans to save that tale for the talk.
During his 26 years at National Geographic, Winter has spent 21 of those photographing big cats.
“What I wanted to do as a kid when I was laying in front of the fireplace in Indiana and daydreaming about walking the dusty paths or streets of these villages ... that’s what I wanted to do.”
He’s been all over the world — upward of 80 countries, although he’s never made it to the Poles — encountering new cultures and different beliefs, living among natives of the areas he’s photographing.
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“It’s really opened me up in ways that are really hard to imagine,” he said. “ ... We don’t need to be able to speak each other’s language. We just understand each other.”
What Winter finds great value in, though, is taking photos that make a difference.
“I love images that have brought about a positive change in a way for that species,” he said.
Winter feels he has done that during his time on the job. He has shed light on tiger trafficking in Thailand and worked to discover that cougars, which had been getting killed by farmers to protect their cattle, are responsible for fewer than 1 percent of cattle deaths.
“I try to find a way to make a difference through journalism and saving animals, and finding real-world solutions,” he said. “Growing up in farm country, I know that a lot of the problems that people have across the world are the fact that we live close to many of these predators and or other animals. ... You need to find an answer to help the local people.”
WHAT: National Geographic Live with Steve Winter: “On the Trail of Big Cats”
WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. July 12
TICKETS: $30 to $40; Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com