Conversations with Joel Sartore: The challenges of photographing 15,000 species of animals.

Nobody ever accused National Geographic projects of lacking ambition. The Photo Ark project is no different. Founded by National Geographic Fellow Joel Sartore, its goal is to photograph each of the roughly 15,000 species of animals currently living in the world’s zoos and sanctuaries. So far, over 10,000 have been documented. A new NatGeo series follows Sartore as he travels the world photographing different animals. The latest episode airs tonight at 10pm/9C.

A portrait of Joel Sartore. (Photo by Cole Sartore)

1. How did you first start photographing animals?
I’ve always had a love for animals. My mother had a set of Time-Life picture books. One was called The Birds and I would spend hours reading through it. My first couple of assignments for National Geographic was the first real nature photography I did. “Eagles on the Rise” was a small story about an effort to hand-rear and release southern bald eagles into the American Southeast. The second story, on America’s Gulf Coast, was much broader, literally spanning from the tip of Florida to Brownsville, Texas.

2. Can you compare photographing animals vs photographing people? How are they different? How are they similar?Photographing animals has always been my passion so I tend to gravitate towards that more. Generally, when you’re taking photos of anything, you want to be able to tell some sort of story or showcase an emotion. Don’t be scared to get close to your subject.

A pair of golden-handed tamarins, Saguinus midas, at the Miller Park Zoo. (Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

3. You often shoot in extreme locations and conditions. First, which conditions do you find the most challenging? Why?

When doing field work for National Geographic Magazine prior to the Photo Ark project many years ago, I put myself in risky situations while working at heights, in swamps, and with animals that have sharp teeth. Now, I definitely still work with animals that have sharp teeth, but I work very closely with with local zoos, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries to take the portrait-style images of the photos for the Ark, all done safely!

In the field, it was insect-borne illnesses and diseases you weally worry about. 

4. How do you prep for shoots in extreme heat/humidity or freezing conditions? Does your workflow remain the same?

Ahead of any Photo Ark shoot I work with caretakers at each facility to ensure the comfort of all animals being photographed. These experts advise me on which animals would be most comfortable being handled and photographed. Shoots typically only last a few minutes. I’m a big proponent of being prepared, so aside from ensuring the animals will be comfortable land working with the zoos, I always do my research before doing any photo shoot. 

A southern three-banded armadillo, Tolypeutes matacus, at Lincoln Children’s Zoo. (Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Is there a secret to successfully photographing an animal?

For Photo Ark images, it’s all about the eye contact. Humans have to connect with the animals to care about them. So I always focus on the animals’ eyes. 6.

Can you discuss the Photo Ark project? What is it and what does it mean to you?

I got the idea for the Photo Ark while my wife was battling breast cancer. She’s healthy and fine today, but I stayed home for a year to take care of her and our three kids. Once Kathy recovered, I decided to focus on one big project, something to reach a public with a decreasing attention span, and really try to move the needle of conservation. 

The National Geographic Photo Ark gives animals the chance to be seen, and have their stories told, while there’s time to save them and their habitats. In my photos, I use the black and white backgrounds with no size comparison so each animal is equal. A small frog becomes as large (and important) as a tiger in these photos. It’s a sight to see when someone can see the beauty in, say, a beetle, an animal people may often dismiss. In my images for the Photo Ark, I hope viewers will look deeply into the eyes of these animals and see they are all important and so worthy of preserving.

Four Sumatran tiger cubs, Panthera tigris sumatrae, at the Tierpark Berlin. (Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Do any particular animals that you’ve photographed stick out to you, for better or for worse?

Most animals I photograph have a real impact on me. I think of their stories and hope to tell each as well as I can. For me this is pretty serious work. I’ve photographed animals that were down to the very last one, such as the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog, which has since passed away and so that animal is likely extinct now.

Also memorable was Nabire, which was one of the last northern white rhinos at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. She was the sweetest, and passed away less than two weeks after our visit due to complications brought on by old age.

What role do you believe photography can play in animal conservation?

Photography can do a huge service in two ways: It can expose environmental problems as nothing else can, and it can help get people to care. The stakes could not be higher. It’s ridiculous to think that we can destroy so many of the Earth’s plants, animals, and ecosystems and not think it can happen to us. 

A group of eastern tiger salamanders, Ambystoma tigrinum tigrinum, at the Caldwell Zoo. (Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

When your time is finished with the Photo Ark and you look back at your time working on it, what do you want to see?

Well we’ll have approximately 15,000 photos (and some video) of species in living in the world’s zoos, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries. I hope that we’ve also helped save some of the vanishing species. That’s the ultimate goal — getting people to care and moving the needle on conservation. 

Finally, do you ever shoot film anymore?

No I don’t. Digital is so fast in terms of seeing results that we can end a shoot the moment we know we’ve got something good. And we can share those files with the world just as rapidly.Of course, archival storage of images is tricky when it comes to digital, so there is a downside in that we have to constantly stay vigilant in keeping our files current, but otherwise digital photography is a real blessing.

Washington, DC – Joel stands surrounded by his images from the Photo Ark. (WGBH Educational Foundation/Chun-Wei Yi)

IMAGE CREDITS: Joel Sartore/National Geographic

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