As any birder knows, weather is a very important factor in bird observation. Rainy, cold, cloudy days are not ideal for birding simply because most birds, much like humans, tend to reduce their level of activity and look for cover. It was therefore with trepidation that we saw the date of the first “Wildlife Photo Master Class Weekend” in Mayakoba approach amidst very grim weather forecasts.
National Geographic wildlife photo-journalist Steve Winter arrived in the Riviera Maya on the preceding Tuesday, and I was invited to join him and James Batt very early the following day for a pre-tour of Mayakoba’s canals and other possible locations for the Master Class. As I drove up to the entrance of Banyan Tree Mayakoba I was awed by a glorious sunrise crowned with a double rainbow, a visual spectacle I decided to interpret as a sign of good things to come. The skies had mercy on us that day but the forecasters had not been delusional and by Friday, as our group of international journalists arrived, the weekend got rolling under thunderous clouds and copious amounts of rain.
Mayakoba, however, refused to disappoint. I’m happy to report that in spite of the less than ideal weather we literally saw hundreds of birds during the weekend. Mother Nature also provided visual encounters with turtles, several species of fish, crocodiles, iguanas in all sizes, coatís and, most surprisingly, a gorgeous deer that looked down on us from the top of a ravine, his gaze locked with ours for several minutes. Then, on Sunday, the sky turned blue and the true beauty of the Yucatan Peninsula became evident in full Technicolor, a much appreciated closing gift.
Nature was the center-stage performer but we also had an amazing orchestra conductor. Steve Winter’s reputation as a great photographer precedes him and after many years working for National Geographic he is very much a celebrity in the world of wildlife photography. As it turned out, he’s also a down-to-earth, generous and amiable storyteller, keen on making sure everyone learned essential concepts on photography while enjoying a one of a kind experience. Along with photographer-journalist Sharon Guynup, his wife and partner of many adventures, they never stopped delivering knowledge, anecdotes, images and good vibrations. Spending a whole weekend with them and their son Nick (by happenstance a birder and an excellent spotter), was fun and fulfilling. Soon I noticed that wide, frequent smiles had become our group’s most distinctive feature. Steve and Sharon continued working hard through the weekend to the last day, when they personally helped participants choose their best images for projection and commentary at the wrap-up dinner.
Activities included several outings along Mayakoba’s beautiful canals aboard Duffy electric boats, as well as a trip by motor-boat through the meanders of the Sian Ka’An Biosphere Reserve. Lectures by Steve were enhanced with projections of his great photographs of wildlife including tigers, birds, elephants, rhinos and breathtaking natural landscapes. I was also deeply impressed by his revealing pictures of people, often taken in the very remote places he travels to in search of the world’s big cats. As a rare treat we were shown video recordings of his perilous encounters with some irritable rhinos that chose to charge his mobile shooting platforms (either open-top jeeps or elephants), prompting the photographer and his helpers to perform speedy retreats. Also of great interest was hearing details about his work with carefully set remote cameras and strobes, which he uses to capture eye-level photographs of tigers and other dangerous animals in the wild, images that would be unattainable in any other way.
“Composition, composition, composition!” was a mantra often heard throughout the weekend and a lesson sure to be taken home by all participants. I whole heartedly agree and embrace that concept, for if technical aspects of photography must be learned and practiced, it all falls back on each photographer’s personal way of looking at the world, framing it in his/her viewfinder and making decisions regarding composition. Most people in our group were writers and not necessarily experienced photographers, yet the concepts put forth by Steve in his simple-to-grasp manner were not lost on anyone, and I include myself among those who felt motivated to become better photographers. One enthusiastic journalist put it best when she exclaimed in appreciation, “We’ve been Winterized!”.
Nevertheless, granting composition its place of great importance in the realm of photography, Steve Winter’s philosophy for the creation of wildlife images goes way beyond an effort to capture beautiful “animal portraits”, which he tends to consider “boring”. Instead, he stresses the ongoing challenge of documenting significant moments of natural behavior and, most importantly, of communicating the larger story of the often troubled interaction between nature and humankind. In his own words, his work is meant “to protect the ones we give voice to in our images”.
Two other noteworthy aspects of this unique experience must not be left without mention: staying in the magnificent villas at Banyan Tree Mayakoba made us feel right at home (…if only home were that nice!), and last but not least, we were treated to a seemingly endless feast of fine cuisine, showcasing the talents of the great chefs of Mayakoba’s Banyan Tree, Fairmont and Rosewood hotels. I’m no food critic but I can definitely appreciate being pampered and nourished, so I’ll limit my commentary to a single, French-derived word: Extraordinaire!
As the weekend came to an end I’m sure we all wished it could last longer. I was hoping to interview Steve for RIDE INTO BIRDLAND but there was literally no time to do it. He gently agreed to meet me on Skype at a later date, so hopefully I’ll soon be able to share that conversation with all our readers. I also received an unexpected gift from Steve and Sharon: a copy of their amazing book TIGERS FOREVER, just released by National Geographic and Panthera. I’m thoroughly enjoying this outstanding volume and will soon make it the main subject of an upcoming post here in RIDE INTO BIRDLAND.
On the final night we were gathered in a private room for a wonderful Thai dinner. After our great weekend together we all felt a warm camaraderie and spirits were high as we looked at each other’s images and benefited from Steve’s photo critique. We also enjoyed seeing more of his amazing photographs of tigers and hearing his amusing, captivating stories of the circumstances behind the photos. Afterwards we were all led to a dock overlooking one of Mayakoba’s canals, where a final surprise awaited us: handmade paper balloons were puffed up by flames and released to fly over the canals, becoming distant points of light in the night sky and carrying with them handwritten wishes from each member of our group. Tradition dictates these wishes be kept secret, lest they remain unfulfilled, so I will not reveal mine. But I dare venture that, if we all could agree on a common desire, it might very well be to be granted a second “Wildlife Photo Master Class Weekend”, in Mayakoba.
Steve Winter is also Director of Media for Panthera, a non-profit organization doing essential, boots-on-the-ground work to protect our planet’s tigers from serious threats to their survival. Please visit Panthera’s website and consider lending a hand by spreading the word, participating in their events or making a donation. Save the tigers!
Steve will be back soon for another Wildlife Photo Master Class Weekend, an experience that will be open to a select group of guests (availability is extremely limited, so sign up promptly). Wildlife photo-journalists Tim Laman and Brian Skerry, legendary shooters who also work for National Geographic, will be leading additional Master Class Weekends. Please note that the original dates, as announced in my first story about this project, are being readjusted for logistical reasons. Check with me often, I’ll keep you all posted.