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National Geographic Photographer Joel Sartore: Raising Awareness


National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore sat down with me recently to talk about the Photo Ark, a project on endangered species that he has focused on for the last twenty years. Here’s what he had to say about the world and what we, as people and as photographers, can do to help save not only at-risk species, but the very ground we walk upon.

Q Can you tell me about the project you’ve been working on?

Photo Ark is a 20-year project to document the world’s captive species as studio portraits. The goal is to get the public to look the species in the eye and hopefully to care while there is still time to save them.

A female African elephant (Loxodonta africana) at the Cheyenne mountain Zoo.

Q How did you get involved with this project?

My wife got breast cancer about eight years ago and on the days where she was feeling good I needed something to do. I had become a National Geographic photographer who was grounded because she was on chemotherapy for a better part of a year and I needed to stay home and take care of the kids.

So to have something to shoot, I went down to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo and started taking pictures of some of their animals on black and white backgrounds. Then I went to the Omaha Zoo, found I liked it, and showed it to National Geographic. They asked me to do a story on the Endangered Species Act using studio portraits and that eventually grew into what we call the Photo Ark today.

So far I have photographed about 3,200 species on black and white backgrounds using studio lighting and I figure the world has between 10,000 and 12,000 species that are captive. So I figure I’m about a quarter of the way to having a really great representation of a cross section of the biodiversity we have on the planet at this time.

But there’s a sense of urgency to this because the world zoos have smaller inventories these days because it’s hard to get species from the wild, especially in parts of the world where wilderness no longer exists. So I need to hurry. There are some species in the zoo now that will never be there again. And it’s a bit of a race to get to all of them while they zoos still have good inventories of species.


The real urgency is the fact that 50% of the world species are at risk of extinction by the turn of the century, and it’s folly to think that we can doom all those species to extinction and not have it affect humanity.

We will pay a terrible price if we doom half of all species to extinction. We will pay a terrible price. We need bees and even flies to pollinate our fruits and vegetables. We need birds and bats to eat the insects that we don’t want. We need grass and trees to filter our air and water sequester carbon and regulate climate.

Q How has this affected you personally?

It made me realize that most people on the face of the earth are just trying to get by. They don’t care. They don’t even know there is a problem. They don’t know what biodiversity is.

So that’s where I come in. I figure if I can introduce them to some of these species then they may fall in love with something. They may decide, “Oh that’s an amazing animal, let me learn about that.” They’ll go to photoark.com and they’ll see an animal they love and they’ll click on it and see why that animal is in trouble and what they’ll do to save it.


I’m under no illusion that we’ll save everything, but I do think it will help. I don’t want it to just become an archive of what the world squandered. I’d like it to do some good, to actually save species.

The biggest thing people who are reading this can do that is help boost its social media profile on Facebook and posting about it and tweeting about it. That’s huge. If we can get our numbers up perhaps we’ll get a corporate advertiser to join us and then we can really build out the Photo Ark site to really become something significant and lasting. And they can go to photoark.com or www.joelsartore.com and tell their friends about it and try to boost the profile of the site.

Q What can people do to help?

Well, the first thing is to go to their local zoo. Become a member. Spend money there, buy lunch there. Most zoos now are breeding and saving endangered species. That’s a great way to save your money. It’s fun and it’s interesting and it’s entertaining, too. Most likely there is a zoo near you that is helping save endangered species.

The other thing people can do is to watch how they spend their money. Every time you break out your purse or your wallet, you are voting. You’re saying to the retailer, “I approve of where this was made, what it’s made from,” and I want you to do it again and again. That’s real power to change the world.


Thinking about saving the earth in terms of how you spend the money can make you money. For example, drive a smaller vehicle, drive it less, and insulate your home well. That’ll save you all sorts of money on your energy bills.

Eat less meat. Buy locally produced food. That saves you from having to ship the food, why burn all that diesel fuel to ship a strawberry across the country in the dead of winter? Why not eat seasonally? It’s better for you and it’s better for the earth.

Quit watering your lawn. You just have to mow it more. And you burn all sorts of fossil fuel doing it. It saves time and it saves money.

Literally everything I can think of that is green can save you money or it can make you money. Being green is a very good thing and it can save species.

Q Can you tell me about the opportunities you have had to see these endangered species in their natural habitat and what it was like?

I have seen a lot of the natural habitats where many species live in my 25-year career with National Geographic magazine. I have noticed many of these wild places are shrinking or being completely destroyed by development.

What development doesn’t get is it seems like climate change, pollution, and invasive species also take a heavy toll. And meanwhile, most people don’t even know there’s a problem. They’re just trying to get through their day.

A male wrinkled hornbill (Aceros corrugatus) at the Houston Zoo.

So really the thing is if you think about it, the general public is never going to get to a jungle and see a rare monkey or see some critically endangered big cats species somewhere. They’re just not going to do it. Most people don’t leave their home country.

And even though I’ve done 35 stories for National Geographic Magazine, now I’ve realized it’s really not enough, that things in the environment continue to get worse every year not better.

So the Photo Ark is really an act of desperation to get people to stop and notice different species and get them to care. I am a voice for the voiceless and these photographs are often the only national media exposure many of these species will get. And it’s a real honor to document these species and get them a moment in the sun. The public will only save what they love and they can’t save something if they don’t even know it exists.

Q What can other photographers do if they have an interest in pursuing similar environmental issues to raise awareness?

If other photographers want to help in saving the earth there’s a lot they can do.

First, realize that nearly every city has environmental issues. It doesn’t have to be photojournalism in some exotic location of some rare species. It can be looking at sources of pollution in your own hometown. Or areas that are going to be developed that shouldn’t be because the city desperately needs green space.

It could be doing photojournalism at a local zoo or sanctuary or wildlife rehabilitation or nature center.

Odds are no matter where you live there are groups of concerned citizens that care deeply about nature and work on a daily basis to save it. The Nature Conservatory, Audubon, and other groups all work very hard to save the earth in every state in the union.

It’s not hard if you look around a little bit to figure out what environmental work needs to be done in your town. Going to your local zoo or aquarium would be a good place to start. Because odds are they’re already working very hard to save species through habitat protection, captive breeding, and more.

Would you like to know more? Visit photoark.com or www.joelsartore.com.

 Have you worked on a project to raise awareness, environmental or otherwise? Leave us a comment below and let us know what issues you’re spreading awareness about with your camera.
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