Getting face-to-face with a spitting cobra or an orangutan is all part of a day’s work for Joel Sartore. Sartore uses photography to promote conservation of animals and their habitats. In 2006, he founded the Photo Ark project with National Geographic to document species in zoos and sanctuaries around the world. His goal is to create portraits of the estimated fifteen thousand species in captivity and inspire people to help protect at-risk species.
Persistence Pays Off
Sartore grew up in Nebraska, U.S.A., and loved looking at the photos in his mother’s Time Life picture books. One image that stuck out to him was a photo of Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon. With Martha’s death at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius)—which once had a population of billions—went extinct. Sartore could not understand how people could let an extinction like that happen, and that feeling has stayed with him.
In high school, Sartore got his start in photography when he borrowed an old camera from a friend’s father. He went on to major in photojournalism in college, then worked for a newspaper for six years. During his time at the newspaper, a National Geographic photographer encouraged him to share some photos with the Society’s headquarters. After two years of sharing his best work, he received his first assignment.
Since then, Sartore has regularly contributed photographs to National Geographic and many other magazines and newspapers. He has also written several books, including many about the National Geographic Photo Ark.
The National Geographic Photo Ark started with a photograph of the naked mole rat at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, close to Sartore’s home in Nebraska. As of January 2020, nearly fifteen years and almost 10,000 animals later, Sartore has traveled to 60 countries and is more than halfway to his goal. It is estimated that the whole Photo Ark project will take about 25 years.
The Power of a Picture
Sartore believes a good photograph can give a voice to rare species, especially those that are small or underappreciated. He thinks many of the species he has photographed for the National Geograhic Photo Ark, like the Palawan Stink Badger (Mydaus marchei) of the Philippines, would not hold much interest for other photographers. But for each photograph, Sartore fills the frame with the subject, regardless of whether it is a bear or a moth, to create a unique and personal portrait of every creature.
“The big, charismatic mammals get all the ink,” he said in an interview with 60 Minutes in 2018. “They get all the press, the gorillas and the rhinos and the tigers. Nobody's thinking about these little guys. I am.”
Social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, have been a big help in spreading awareness and sharing Photo Ark with an audience of over one hundred million people. However, Sartore believes that even without audiences of this magnitude, local photojournalism can still greatly impact a community, alerting local audiences to problems in their environment.
On his website, Sartore says that photography can make a difference in two ways: “It can expose environmental problems as nothing else can, and it can help get people to care.”