It’s not easy to photograph 12,000 animals, one at a time.
Then again, when you’re a career National Geographic photographer looking to spend more time with your children — and you’re tired of flirting with malaria and being menaced in conflict zones by drug-addled 16-year-olds with AK-47s — then a life-changing passion project seems like both a decent option and a worthwhile out.
Furthermore, when you realize that many of the wild animals you grew to love as a child are in critical danger of disappearing entirely, taking the time to make a photographic studio archive of those species that remain is an easy call to make.
For some, a passion project is all about personal satisfaction.
For Joel Sartore, a 54-year-old wildlife photographer and 20-year National Geographic veteran from Ralston, Nebraska, the Photo Ark — his multi-year project to take studio portraits of every single species on the planet, or as many as he can feasibly fit into his remaining years — has become a defining moment in humankind’s cataloguing of life on earth.
Generations from now, the world may well look back on Sartore’s Photo Ark as the sole remaining evidence that these animals ever existed.
Sartore, a lifelong conservationist, hopes it never comes to that — obviously. Too many animal species have vanished in just our lifetimes for it not to be a viable reality, though.
A picture is worth a thousand words, but Sartore’s Photo Ark pictures may be worth many more than that. (An early version of the quote, by the way, was, “One picture (is) worth ten thousand words,” as stated by Fred R. Barnard in the advertising trade journal Printer’s Ink on March 10, 1927 — but you get the picture.)
Heavy lies the burden of responsibility, especially when an unofficial record of life on earth looks like it may become part of the official record.
Sartore appeared alongside PBS-WGBH Boston programming president and one-time National Geographic filmmaker John Bredar and art director, National Geographic fellow and Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark program maker Chun-Wei Yi at this year’s winter meeting of the Television Critics Association in Pasadena, Calif.
In an hour-long press session with reporters that was by turns sad, reflective, passionate and life-affirming, Sartore touched on everything from his lifelong interest in photography and wildlife to the future of the planet and his hopes and dreams for the Photo Ark.
What he said was worth repeating verbatim, in parts anyway. The rest, his photos — a handful appear here, with many of the rest at his gallery on www.joelsartore.com — explain so much better, and in considerably less than the 2,500 words or so that appear here.
ON HOW SARTORE FIRST BECAME INTERESTED IN PHOTOGRAPHY
”My parents were really interested in nature. My dad took me hunting and fishing growing up. My mother loved backyard birds and flowers and wildlife. They both cared about nature. As for photography, actually I got into photography in my senior year in high school, trying to impress a cheerleader I was in love with at Ralston High School in Nebraska. I took some pictures of her, and she found it creepy. So that was that.
“The hobby stuck, though, and it turned into a profession. I went into photojournalism in college because it didn’t require math or chemistry, to be honest with you.”
THE PHOTO ARK’S ORIGINS
“I’d been a contract photographer for the Geographic for a long time. Eleven, twelve years ago, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I had never really been home with my three kids. I’d never changed a diaper on the youngest one, sad to say. I was always gone. My wife was a very tolerant person; she let me go out and shoot these stories. My stories were mostly conservation related, trying to make the world a better place. But now I was home for a year, and I had a lot of time to think. I thought about the work of John James Audubon, who devoted his entire life to painting and describing the behaviours of the birds and mammals of North America. I thought of Edward Curtis, who could see that European settlement was going to change the life of Native Americans. He devoted his entire adult life to documenting tribal customs and dress before that was eroded by European society.
“I was 42 at the time. And while my life and career was half over, I thought if Kathy survived and we didn’t lose our house, because I wasn’t able to go work anymore, if she made it, I thought I really should do something that sticks. I’d had a couple of stories that got some results, shooting in the field. But my early Photo Ark pictures really seemed to hit a nerve. I don’t know, they just resonated with people. So I thought, well, I’ll just do a giant catalog. The strength of it will be when you see that there are thousands of species of rodents, not just the house mouse you may see running across your garage once in a while. There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of beetle species. here are so many different species out there that nobody knows about. So that’s how the Photo Ark was born.
“My wife’s fine now, but it was a close call. The Photo Ark was born out of wanting to do something that stuck.
“A magazine story comes and goes in a month. Hopefully this will be around for a while, maybe for future generations. Because, really, people don’t seem to care much about extinction, if at all, right now. There wasn’t a single question asked during any of the presidential debates about the environment — not even about climate change, really. So whatever it takes to get people to have a new conversation is worthwhile. I realize true change is generational, but we don’t really have many more generations to go before things start getting really uncomfortable for all of us — extreme weather events, pollution, more division in society, that kind of thing.”
ON CLIMATE CHANGE AND ITS EFFECTS
“Amphibians need plenty of moisture to lay their legs, and to breed. And if the moisture quits coming at the right time of the year, you can lose an entire amphibian species virtually overnight, in a year or two, because they're not long-lived, some of them. So climate change is a really big deal. It affects the foraging plants that butterflies need, and so many other things. It can’t be overstated how complicated it is and how we don’t even know what’s going to happen with climate change fully yet. We just know it’s going to have severe impacts for all of us, not just wildlife.”
ON WHICH ANIMALS PROVED TO BE MOST CAMERA SHY
“(The big) cats don’t care for it; you're right. But cats are also predators, and they feel pretty confident. So they're not stressed by much. When we photograph big cats, we always prep a space ahead of time, an off-exhibit space. Then the zoo will shift the animal into that space. So we’re able to do our portraits that way. It goes pretty easily and well, as a general rule.
THE SCARIEST ANIMAL TO PHOTOGRAPH
“Oh, scariest! Scariest. You know, big cats are frightening, if they’re a little irritated. They like to charge and roar.
“Maybe the most frustrating, though, are chimps, believe it or not, because I'm not really working with trained animals, like you’d think of here in the L.A. area. I’m working with animals that are quite rare, or just unusual, and they’re not handled by people that often. They’re just not worked with. I’m not working with movie chimps. The chimps I do work with, I’ll put seamless paper up. I’ll spend an hour taping it down. And they ship the chimps in, and half the time the chimp doesn’t even come in. Then he’ll take his hand and rip the entire seamless roll into the next stall, just rips it away. We see that all the time.
“But I’ve been around animals my whole life, so I don't necessarily think of them as scary, most of them. I don’t like cockroaches much, but I’ve photographed 40 different types of species of cockroaches now. Nothing is too terribly scary. I feel like I’m their voice, and I really want to tell their story. Again, I’d say for 75 percent of the animals we photograph, this is the only time anybody is ever going to pay attention to them, so it’s an honour.”
ON THE USE OF PLAIN WHITE AND BLACK BACKDROPS
“We start off with the animal on a black-and-white background, because it’s the great equalizer. A mouse is every bit as important as an elephant. They’re both the same size. You can look animals directly in the eye that way, and really get a sense that they’re intelligent and worth saving, right. Beyond that, we can get our lights closer to the animals if we have them in a confined space, and that's why these pictures look so vivid. We alwaysthe black-and-white backgrounds; we start out that way.
“There is going to be some Photoshop in some of them. Like, with that rhino, she was really an elderly female rhino; we did not want not anything underfoot to trip her up, freak her out. So we put in the floor in Photoshop. With grazing animals, many times we’ll put the floor in in Photoshop, but we start them off our usual way. They’re lit correctly, and they’re in front of backdrops. Most of them are standing actually on a backdrop. But with black, most of the time we’ll put the floor in afterwards.”
ANIMALS THAT HAVE BECOME EXTINCT SINCE THE PROJECT BEGAN
“There's an animal called a Rabbs' tree frog that was the very last one. It was at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, and it has passed away. So they're extinct now. Another one called the Columbian basin pigmy rabbit that lives in eastern Washington State; it's more-or-less gone now. And frogs, insects.
“When I was a kid growing up, my mother bought a picture book on birds, one the Time Life series. In the back was a section on extinction. It showed the passenger pigeon, and some other birds that had gone extinct. I was always amazed by that. I didn’t think I would live long enough to see another animal go extinct. Well, in the 11 years I’ve been doing the Photo Ark project, I’ve probably seen ten go extinct. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“If people don't stop and think about how we’re deforesting the planet and straining the oceans, it’s worrying to see what might happen. We really do need a sea change in how the public views its relationship with nature and habitats. We truly do. And that’s kind of the point of the project. At its worst, the Photo Ark is just a big archive of what we threw away. At its best, I like to think it can motivate people to care and take action, while there’s still time.
“It's really late in the game for many of those animals.”
ON WORKING WITH AND ON ZOO GROUNDS
“Most of the time, 99.9 percent of the time, I'm working at captive institutions, because as likeable as I am, it’s really hard to convince a wild tiger to come up and lie on your black backdrop in India. So we work primarily at zoos, aquariums, private breeders and wildlife rehab centres. And to be perfectly honest with you, those are the keepers of the kingdom. A lot of these animals don’t exist in the wild anymore. They’re only found in zoos or at private breeders. The wild is gone. The habitat has been cut. So they really are the ark, the true ark, a lot of these institutions.
“I do try to work at places that have abundant attention and care. The few times where I have shot the wild, it was a little tricky. There are a couple of species of lemur that aren't really found in captivity anywhere. They can’t be kept in captivity because of their diet. One is the world’s largest lemur, called an indri. (Chun-Wei) thought it would be great to go and get one in the wild, and I was, like, ‘They live up in the trees and they move like rocket ships.’ But he found one that was trained to come down for tourists and eat out of one guide’s hands. We had this black backdrop and we lit it. It’s shocking that we were able to get that, but we did. But, make no mistake, it’s difficult to do in the wild. We can do small animals in the wild, but mainly we work in captive institutions.
“And that does put a cap on the project, on what we can do. The world’s zoos, aquariums, that kind of thing, they have between 12- and 14,000 species. And in the wild, in nature, there are millions. I could probably do another 10, 15 years on this, and get to most of what the world had captive. But to do that in the wild, it’s virtually impossible.”
ON SHARING IMAGES WITH OTHER INSTITUTIONS
”I did want to make one more comment about that; I want to follow up. We share the pictures with every zoo or aquarium. We share these pictures for free, and then we promote the place where they were taken on social media. Geographic’s Instagram account has more than 65 million followers now. So that is really a powerful way to get the message out about these animals. It’s a also a good deal for most of these places, and they realize that. They've seen the pictures. They know about the projects. Access is a lot easier now. When I started, the first couple of years I remember I was allowed to photograph snakes and turtles, and that was about it, because what can you do to a snake or turtle, right? So that was it.
“But now we have a lot of access, to different animals. And we make sure the world sees these animals. The shoot with a zoo or an aquarium is usually the start of our relationship, because we'll be posting these pictures for years to come and let the public know about these creatures.
“I mean, you realize it would be absolutely catastrophic if we lose biodiversity. It is catastrophic. It’s hard to picture in L.A. You’re in your car. The radio’s turned up. You go to a nice place to eat. You hang out there. You go back, file a story. But it will be absolutely catastrophic if we collapse the ecosystems on the planet. We have to have rainforests to provide us with oxygen and regulate precipitation. We have to have bees to pollinate fruits and vegetables that we eat. It's not something anybody’s talking about right now, and I’m hoping that people will wake up eventually and start to do so.”
ON PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE ISSUE OF FILM v. DIGITAL
“Digital is a racehorse compared to film, a racehorse. It’s so much more flexible when it comes to press standards, reproduction standards. And it’s made the shoots go a lot quicker. We can photograph animals very, very quickly. That’s key to reducing stress. We can see what we’re getting on the back of the camera, and stop right then. With film, you were always guessing. I did not start the Photo Ark on anything but digital.”
ON 4K AND THE PRESSURE TO KEEP UP WITH ADVANCING CAMERA TECHNOLOGY
“It’s tough, it really is. I do some video in 4K, but most of what I do is stills that are 41-meg files now, with the latest Nikon gear. But still, it’s only archival for as long as you maintain the equipment that can read those files. So there is this constant dilemma going forward in time.
“We're talking about animals that won't be here in 50 years, 100 years. How will we make sure people are able to see it? We make sure that we print out the best ones to archival film or paper. We do books, exhibitions.
“It’s a big question. Nobody really knows how we're going to archive things 100 years from now that need to be archived. We really don’t know, so it’s a dilemma. Going back and looking at the first photographs, the technology has changed so much that some of them already look crude. But we do what we can. These animals are here now, gone tomorrow. We document them as best we can now and just hope. Hope for the best.”
HOW TO IMPROVE ONE’S OWN PHOTOGRAPHY, WHETHER YOU;RE A HOBBYIST OR PRO
”Use your brain. I’m not being facetious. You can shoot great pictures with a smartphone. In fact, Geographic has ’The Great Courses’ course now that has Geographic photographers teaching just that. It is not the gear. It is how you see. It is whether or not you think about how a subject would look from above, from ground level, in nice light, something interesting. Those are the keys. Nice light, something interesting, perspective — and a clean background that doesn’t fight you. You're trying to tell a story. Everybody’s trying to tell a story. It’s that simple, but it's not that easy, because life’s pretty chaotic. Great stuff doesn’t always happen in nice light. It’s certainly true when we were filming this show — if an animal is out in the brush, it’s very hard to see. That’s why the Photo Ark pictures are effective — it’s because we can actually see the animal. A lot of these animals live under the leaf litter or in muddy water. So having a clean, nice background, a great moment in time and a nice light, those are keys. But don’t worry about the gear. Do not worry about the gear.”
THE LAST WORD — AND REASON FOR HOPE
“We try to leave people with a sense of hope, because there is hope. Most of what I've photographed so far — and we're halfway done with the Photo Ark now — we're trying to get every captive species in the world. We’re at more than 6,000 now. Most of these animals can be saved, but it takes people knowing that they exist. We're not going to save anything we've never met.
“Most of them can be saved, but we've got to save big tracts of intact habitat. We cannot log every tropical rainforest and expect that things are going to be okay. It’s going to screw up global precipitation patterns like crazy, and millions of people will starve when the rains don’t come to the areas where they need rain to grow crops. It’s much bigger than just saving a rhino or a frog. It really is.
“But, sure, absolutely, there’s hope, or I wouldn't be doing it.”