Photographer Steve Winter’s snow leopard photographs currently on display in London

December 1, 2009

Story behind the picture: Snow Leopard, 2008

Photographer Steve Winter on his candid picture of the elusive cat

The editor of National Geographic asked its photographers: “What would be your dream project?” I wrote “snow leopards”. I’d read a book about them years before I started photographing animals. We did a recce in Hemis National Park in Ladak, northern India, and met local people. Standing in the valley, it felt like being on the Moon: no trees, just rock. I’m a jungle guy, used to hot and steamy but I thought, I can do this. It took us four days to get our equipment in by horse and set up a base camp. Snow leopards are habitual: they mark locations by rubbing their necks on rocks to leave a scent, especially during the mating season. To see one, you have to find a trail: you won’t see one just walking around. I found a trail with the help of a local man named Tashi. We set up 14 remote cameras that use an infrared system with a laser beam. I wanted the photograph to be composed the way it would have been if I were lying on the ground, taking it myself. I wanted to make people say “wow”. This project was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. We spent six and a half months in the valley and at night, it reached -50C (-58F). I spoke to my wife at night on the satellite phone until my hands were freezing. We would check the cameras every one to two weeks so that we didn’t leave our scents there and put the leopards off. There was one camera with a frame that I loved, but the cats never went past it. Then one day there was this shot of a leopard in a snowstorm at night. I couldn’t have asked for better. You look at it and your jaw just drops. Steve Winter’s Snow Leopard is on display at the World Press Photo exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall, London, until December 13, 2009.

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