Portraits of Survival: Joel Sartore and the Photo Ark

As a longtime wildlife conservationist, National Geographic contributing photographer Joel Sartore has gained nationwide recognition for his work on the Photo Ark, a unique photography project he launched to raise awareness of the world’s endangered species before they become extinct. Sartore, who is also an author and public speaker, began his work on the Photo Ark 10 years ago after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, which prompted him to stay home for a year to care for the couple’s three children. During that time, Sartore visited the local zoo in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, to take some photos, and he was inspired to do more to help endangered species. Earlier this year, he visited the Naples Zoo to photograph some of the zoo animals as well as endangered species from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Today Sartore and his staff of five continue the massive undertaking of documenting 12,000 endangered species and educating the public about their importance.

Florida red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis umbrinus) at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

NI: What inspired you to create the Photo Ark?

SARTORE: By the time my wife got sick, I had already done 35 stories for National Geographic. I wondered what I could do to reach the public and get them to care about biodiversity and the extinction crisis, since more than half of all species could be extinct by 2100. I needed to do something easy to comprehend at a glance, and it seemed taking portraits of the animals on black and white backgrounds using studio lighting would be effective.

What do you hope to accomplish?

The idea is not just to create the world’s largest archive of high-quality animal photography, which it already is, but to engage the public and get them thinking about everything from their consumer choices to ways of helping the species survive. People love animals, but I don’t think they understand what they’re up against. That’s our role: to educate and inspire people to care about the planet.

How do you fund a project of this magnitude?

National Geographic provided a small fellowship, but that only covers a small part of the work, so we’re always looking for investors. People can also purchase prints from the Photo Ark. One hundred percent of the money goes to fund the next trip so we can keep going, and all donations are tax-deductible. Sometimes I charge it all to my credit card. It’s a giant money-losing venture, but it’s important.

What brought you to Naples?

I came to the Naples Zoo in May to photograph a Florida panther that had been shot in the face, a reticulated python, and a zebra, among a few other animals. I actually worked in Naples for one of my first stories for National Geographic many years ago, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to see the zoo, so visiting was a lot of fun. You can tell the staff cares deeply about animals.

Damara zebra (Equus burchellii antiquorum) at the Naples Zoo. This subspecies is known for having a shadow stripe pattern in between the primary stripes of its coat.

Why focus on just black and white as a backdrop?

The backgrounds are a great equalizer. Against a plain black or white background, a mouse becomes every bit as important as a polar bear, and a turtle appears thoughtful and wonderful like an elephant. When you eliminate all distractions, such as grass or dirt, you really look these animals in the eye and see there’s great intelligence there, they’re more similar to you and me than we think. They’re wonderful, thoughtful creatures that deserve a basic chance of survival.

What’s next?

This fall, we’ll have photographed about 5,000 of the world’s 12,000 captive endangered species, and it’s our goal to photograph every one on Earth over a 20- to 25-year period. In another 15 years or so, we’ll have a good cross-representation of what the world has. It’s an expensive endeavor, but it’s something I can do to make a difference in the long run. Really, it’s folly to think we could drive half of the species to extinction and think it won’t affect us. If we don’t do something to fix it, we’ll be left with a very hot, miserable planet, and while life will still continue, it will be very different.

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