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  • September 23, 2013

One Photographer’s Mission to Build an Ark

National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore is on a mission in what may be the biggest assignment of his life. For decades Sartore has photographed some of the world’s wildest places for National Geographic, from Antarctica to the Amazon rain forest.

But Sartore didn’t feel like he was making a dent in species conservation. Eight years ago, Sartore began a project called Photo Ark, which aims to photograph the roughly 6,000 species currently inhabiting zoos around the world. Now he’s more than halfway there, at 3,050 captive species and counting.

Picture of a flock of scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber), Caldwell Zoo, Tyler, Texas
A flock of scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber), Caldwell Zoo, Tyler, Texas

A lot of advance work and behind-the-scenes prep happens in concert with zoo employees to ensure the animals are comfortable before he starts photographing. For each picture he installs a stark black or white background. “It allows us to get close and personal and look them in the eye,” Sartore said. “You can see details and what makes them marvelous.”

“It’s easier to photograph captive animals, because we’re pretty sure we’re going to get their picture. We can control the lighting and we know we’re not going to get skunked. But it’s harder in a sense to make an interesting picture.”

Picture of a six-day-old Malayan tapir (Tapirus inducus), Minnesota Zoo.
A six-day-old Malayan tapir (Tapirus inducus), Minnesota Zoo

He likes to create a harmonious chaos by grouping certain animals together, like a flock of flamingoes.

Among the most beautiful animals he’s photographed, Sartore said, are the birds, especially pheasants and birds of paradise. “They are absolutely stunning, with just fantastic colors,” he said.

Big cats, great apes, and bears are some of the most challenging (“they shred background material”), so he often uses latex paint that they can’t tear up.

Through the process of making these portraits, Sartore said he’s learned that animals, like us, have a range of emotions. “They have thoughts and feelings. They’re happy, mad, sometimes malicious, sometimes playful. They’re a lot like us—we’re animals too,” Sartore said. “I’ve learned they’re all important and they all count.”

Zoos are the ark now and a lot of species would already be extinct without them, Sartore said.

Picture of a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia), Minnesota Zoo
Cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia), Minnesota Zoo

National Geographic Q & A with photographer Joel Sartore

National Geographic: What was the evolution of Photo Ark?

Joel Sartore: My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly nine years ago. During her recovery, on the days she was feeling better, I went to the Lincoln [Nebraska] Children’s Zoo, very near my home, and started to do photos of small animals using black-and-white backgrounds and studio lighting. I just needed to shoot something, anything, as I’d never been “grounded” or made to stay home in all the years since starting to work for [National Geographic magazine]. The first couple species I did were a naked mole rat and a pair of poison dart frogs.

How did it expand into a bigger project?

I found that I liked the way the backgrounds gave all species equal weight and importance. Plus, I could look each creature directly in the eye, which was engaging. In time I found myself going to the zoos in Omaha, Kansas City, and Sioux Falls to do more and more portraits. The project has grown ever since.

Zoos take care of them and breed them and save them. Zoos are the keepers of the kingdom from now on. It’s important for people to support zoos financially and find out how they can volunteer their time and help zoos preserve what we have left of nature.

Picture of a sand cat (Felis margarita), Chattanooga Zoo
Sand cat (Felis margarita), Chattanooga Zoo

What is the goal of Photo Ark?

The goal of all this is to simply get the public to finally wake up and pay attention. Half of all species could go extinct by the turn of the next century if we don’t stop tearing up the planet. This will be a lose/lose situation for all of us.

The species we share the Earth with are not only amazing, but very beneficial to humans. Indeed, they hold the key to our very survival. We need pollinating insects to produce fruit and vegetables. We need healthy forests to regulate our climate. So when we save other species, we’re actually saving ourselves.

But we won’t care, and certainly won’t be moved to save anything, if we don’t know these species exist, and that many are in trouble. That’s where these photos come in.

Picture of a spectacled eider (Somateria fischeri), Cincinnati Zoo
Spectacled eider (Somateria fischeri), Cincinnati Zoo

How does Photo Ark inform the assignments you take on in the wild?

I try to select assignments where I can do Photo Ark shoots as well. When I covered the koala crisis in Australia, I spent a lot of time working with zoos and wildlife rehab facilities in the area as well. By combining both, I’m able to get studio shots of the animal and then go an extra step and show what is happening to the animal in the wild, whether it’s habitat loss, disease, or poaching.

A five-month- old Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) named 'Mulana' (which means 'sprit' in the aboriginal language) at Healesville Sanctuary, Australia
A five month old Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) named ‘Mulana’ (which means ‘sprit’ in the aboriginal language) at Healesville Sanctuary, Australia

What are your most recent projects?

I’ve been doing nonstop Photo Ark shoots since I finished the Zoos story ["Building the Ark" in National Geographic magazine’s October 2013 issue], every week now. I was in Australia two weeks ago, then Kansas, and now Grand Rapids.

What has been the greatest challenge or disappointment you have faced with this project?

That people still care more about the price at the pump and what’s on TV instead of waking up and realizing that we’re on the cusp of the biggest extinction since the dinosaurs vanished. There’s no time to lose for this project to catch fire.

What has been your greatest accomplishment with Photo Ark?

It’s the opportunity to tell the story of each and every species that I photograph. For many, this will be the only national attention they’ll ever get before they no longer exist, either in captivity or in the wild.

How can people who would like to help get involved?

People can visit photoark.com to learn more and donate to the project. They can also write to us at info@joelsartore.com. We’ve got no shortage of ideas.

Christy Ullrich is the editor of the Polar Bear Watch blog.

There are 28 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Lis
    January 13, 2014

    This is so inspirational, and I love seeing conservation and art intersecting in this way.

  2. K Pradeep
    December 3, 2013

    Nice Photos

  3. Carlos J. Garay
    October 16, 2013

    THANK YOU NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC FOR YOUR WONDERFUL PHOTO GIFTS YOU PROVIDE TO THE WORLD. Without you, NO ONE would know there is a wonderful NATURE we must learn to LOVE AND CARE FOR…

    Thanks, Carlos J Garay

  4. carlos j garay
    October 16, 2013

    Just AMAZING PICTURES..I wish I could be able to take some pics like these, I congratulate the MASTER PHOTOGRAPHER who is able to do this magnificent work.

  5. Colleen OBryan
    October 5, 2013

    Your photos and hard work are so amazing. Thank you so much. I love looking at these beautiful creatures.

  6. fernando roberto
    October 2, 2013

    me encanta national geographic es muy interesante y te enseña cuidal la flora y la fauna
    de cualquier parte de el mundo
    GRACIAS A LOS CREADORES DE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

  7. mary jane sexton
    October 2, 2013

    I am disabled and don’t have a lot of extra money to donate but would love to help anyway I can. I agree with you that people need to be more worried about these beautiful animals. Man is his own worse enemy.

  8. Jennifer
    October 2, 2013

    Stunning photography!! I live behind my Zoo in Perth Western Australia and I am a photographer with a deep passion for all creatures great and small, and hope I to can achieve what you are doing for Photo Ark in my own small way. Pleasure to view your beautiful work. You truly are inspirational Joel.

  9. fernando marquez
    October 1, 2013

    magnifico trabajo.felicitaciones.

  10. Lisa
    September 28, 2013

    This is real-life “Pokemon Snap”.

  11. ATENA MIRZAEI
    September 27, 2013

    Thank you
    It was fantastic.

  12. Kimberly smith
    September 25, 2013

    Love what you are doing!
    Will there be a book of all your photos when you are done?

  13. M.Smith
    September 25, 2013

    These photos are beautiful. How can I find More? and how can I help my little zoo here in northern Utah?

  14. Sudhir Sajwan
    September 25, 2013

    lovely creation.

  15. Vicente LLorca Saprissa
    September 25, 2013

    Simply extraordinary. Great photographic work.

  16. Pritam Barua
    September 25, 2013

    The attempt that you are taking to save the wild and to awake us, the people that’s just fabulous and awesome. Salute to you.

  17. Daleesa Cole
    September 24, 2013

    Thank you so much for sharing this!! I am a junior studying Fisheries and Wildlife and I hope to help endangered species. My passion lies in helping conserve and preserve the current species all over the world and how to recover those being lost. Thanks for being an inspiration to me!!

  18. Jesada Somsuphangsri
    September 24, 2013

    “Photo Ark”, a fantastic job.

  19. Joanne Woods
    September 24, 2013

    Thank you so much for sharing and doing what you do. I wish there were more people out there like you. I always do my part where I can as I know how important this is. Wish more people would care like we do. When it’s too late they wish they would have

  20. Richie Joy
    September 24, 2013

    WOW!!! Wonderful.

  21. Jennifer Lowry
    September 24, 2013

    Congrats Joel! Keep up the good work! Best of wishes to your family.

  22. erik
    September 24, 2013

    very amazing! congrats!

  23. lottie watson
    September 24, 2013

    love your work and your heart stay at it….I’m proud to share my state with you Mr. Satore…I’ve followed your work…

  24. Jose Dominguez
    September 24, 2013

    you should make a trip to Toledo Zoo in Toledo ohio they have many endangered species there that need to be photographed …=-] ps id help you with the setup…

  25. william carman
    September 23, 2013

    Bravo Mr. Satore

  26. Clement Irabor Okundaye-Kelvin
    September 23, 2013

    Wonderful, d project & vision to capture nature 4 posterity. Reach us & capture what sets Global Climate Change into motion @ambassadorswin

  27. Claudia
    September 23, 2013

    Thank you, Mr Satore, for what you are doing. It nice to know that there are other people out there that respect animals like they should be.

  28. ilialoha Pine
    September 23, 2013

    It was fascinating reading & seeing this article about what you’ve done I’ve always believed if you travel and don’t make the time to enjoy the greatness of Gods wonders our 6 or 7 senses and the beauty within them, as you have demonstrated by this project what a blessing you are to share this vision. Thank you./ Mahalo nui loa!

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