Joel Sartore may have been talking to a Granada Theatre full of elementary school students, but he sure didn’t handle them with kid gloves. The National Geographic wildlife photographer began the presentation of his Photo Ark project ― a quest to catalog every species of animal living in the planet’s zoos and sanctuaries ― with a lesson on the duties of a visual journalist. It’s his job to document events, not judge them, Sartore explained as he displayed bloody images from a “rattlesnake roundup,” where the reptiles were skinned, stuffed, and eaten en masse. He then talked about the perils of working in the field, telling a story about getting bat poop in his eye and being quarantined for three months, and about the time he dove with piranhas.
With the hundreds of normally squirmy kids now utterly enraptured, Sartore then explained why he embarked on the Photo Ark and why it’s so effective in bringing attention to disappearing animals. Compared to shadowy jungles and murky rivers, the predictability of the studio lets him light and display his subjects in all their glory. “You can really see them this way,” Sartore said. “It’s the eye contact that moves people.” Every image is the same size, “because everything counts,” he went on, “even if it’s a frog, even if it’s an insect.”
The photos are meant to “do work” out on the streets, Sartore said, covering posters, buses, and magazine covers, and inspiring people to care more about the natural world. “Half of Earth’s species could go extinct by the time you’re old as me,” he intoned. “But I love how you’re reacting,” he said over the oohs and ahhs. “It gives me hope you’re going to do something.” Because it’s the people who did something that saved the condors in California and the marmots in Canada, he explained.
Since the Photo Ark started back in 2005, Sartore has made a handful of trips to the South Coast to photograph at the Santa Barbara Zoo and UCSB, and just a few days before his Granada talk put on by Arts & Lectures, he visited the Wildlife Care Network. He also talked with us over email.
How many more species do you plan to photograph? What’s at the top of your bucket list? We’ll now have to travel farther and wider to get the remaining species. At the top of my list is the Bornean subspecies of the Sumatran rhino, located in Indonesia. We expect to have 10,000 species photographed by the turn of the year, so more than halfway done now. The world has perhaps 15,000 species in human care, but the number remains elusive.
What type of animal do you have a soft spot for? Are you a bird guy? A reptile lover? Most animals I photograph have a real impact on me. They’re all like children to me because I’m the only voice most will ever have. If I had to choose a favorite animal right now, though, I suppose it would be Nabire, one of the last northern white rhinos at the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic. She was the sweetest, and she passed away less than two weeks after our visit of complications brought on by old age. Now the world just has two left, both in a single pen in Kenya.
I’m sure there are many examples, but what’s one specific instance of your work making an impact? Historically, the Florida grasshopper sparrow occurred all over the prairies of central Florida. In the last few years, however, it has neared extinction, with biologists struggling to find the reason why. When the Photo Ark covered the bird for an Audubon Magazine cover story, it got so much attention that the U.S. government went from spending $20-$30k per year to document its demise to $1.2 million to begin a captive breeding program. That breeding program is a success today, and so there’s real hope for the sparrow, thanks to the hard work of the researchers and breeding centers such as White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, FL. I’m very proud of that.
What are some tips and tricks you’ve picked up over the years? When working with wildlife and nature in general, it is absolutely crucial to respect your subject and surroundings. This means leaving everything as you found it and taking your trash out with you. With wildlife, it means disturbing your subject as little as possible. Before you even set foot in the field, research your subjects and talk to people who know the area you’ll be working in. Do your homework and don’t waste the time of the people who are helping you out.
Show up when you’re supposed to, and always send the prints that you promise to people. Learn what the rules of conduct are for the species you’ll be photographing, what a respectful distance is, what behavior to avoid, and what their “back off” signal is. The goal is to safely get good photos of your subject behaving normally, not showing aggression or running away from you.
How do you stay positive and motivated when we’re constantly hearing bad news about the environment? When world leaders say they don’t believe in climate change and then undermine conservation efforts? I still believe that people will want to help, but they first have to meet these animals and learn what the problems are. I meet wildlife heroes all the time, individuals who work hard to save species right in their own backyards. For each and every one of them, it started with education, pure and simple. I was inspired to start photographing animals because so many truly had no voice of their own in terms of conservation ― and that’s what continues to drive me on this project.
And let’s not forget this: When we save other species, we’re actually saving ourselves. We need pollinating insects to bring us fruits and vegetables. We need healthy, intact rainforests both to keep the planet cool and help regulate global rainfall patterns, which enable our crops to dependably grow. It’s fallacious to think that we can doom millions of plant and animal species to extinction but that we’ll be just fine. It won’t work that way.