I met photographer, author and conservationist Joel Sartore in the garden of the Petit Palais in Paris. We sat just outside the museum’s cafe, the afternoon sunlight fleeing from our shoes and down the worn marble steps of the garden. We didn’t have much time to talk, but I had to hand it to Joel: He knows a good composition when he sees one.
Joel’s photos have appeared in National Geographic for the last quarter of a century, nearly half his lifetime, and for the last 10 years he’s dedicated himself to the Photo Ark, an ambitious project to photograph every captive species on the planet. Yes, all 12,000 of them. The project took shape during the year Joel stayed home to be with his wife, then suffering from breast cancer and undergoing chemotherapy.
“She made it,” Joel said. But until that point, he had a long time to think about his life and career.
While Joel was proud of the stories he’d worked for NatGeo, and especially proud of the handful of times those stories had made a difference (he credits a March 2000 article with influencing the deconstruction of a dam that would have drowned a Bolivian rainforest), he had yet to “move the needle,” as he put it, any further. “Nothing in terms of turning culture around and getting people to put down their phones taking selfies and stop and think about what we’re doing to the world,” he said.
The Photo Ark arose from that feeling, he explained, as “a kind of desperate last chance in the second half of my career to get the public engaged.”
The Photo Ark: Making Eye Contact
The Photo Ark enjoys a simple explanation and an exhausting execution: Studio portraits of animals on black and white backgrounds. But not a few animals––all the animals.
“The black and white backgrounds are a great equalizer,” said Joel. “They make all species equal, whether it’s a mouse or an elephant, it’s the same size. It also allows no distractions, and eye contact.”
Eye contact is the critical element. “We see that in a lot of surveys that are done at zoos of the world. If an animal looks at a person it makes their day,” said Joel. “It changes their experience and changes their opinion of the zoo.”
The power of that engagement is what keeps Joel going. In 10 years, he’s captured some 5,400 species on film, at zoos, aquariums, wildlife rehabilitation centers and private institutions. He figures at this rate it’s going to take him until he’s 70 years old before he’s through.
Unfortunately, Joel is racing against the clock.
Last summer, a Duke University study found that species are disappearing 1,000 times faster than they did before the rise of humans. Today, scientists are speculating that fully half of the planet’s flora and fauna may be extinct by 2100. “We are on the verge of the sixth extinction,” said biologist Stuart Pimm, lead author of the Duke study, referring to the five mass extinction events in Earth’s history that precede the current era. However, unlike those previous extinctions, the sixth is not due to geologic or stellar anomalies but the rapaciousness of human beings.
This is the subject of filmmaker Louie Psihoyos’ latest documentary, Racing Extinction, in which Joel plays a major role. Joel’s photographs have appeared in both the film and its promotion, been projected onto the side of the Empire State Building and, the day after our interview, across the walls of the Vatican. (When I caught up with Joel, he’d just flown in from a gig at the Plzeň Zoo in the Czech Republic; hours later, he was on a plane to Rome.)
“Not to be morbid,” I asked, “but do you ever think during a shoot that you’ll be the last person to see this animal alive?”
Joel didn’t think that question was morbid at all. “Every one,” he said. “Every one. I’m the only one who’s going to see this thing up close. For most of the species.”
On his laptop, he showed me half a dozen animals that had gone extinct since the Photo Ark began. For several species, zoos are now the only place on Earth they can be found. In July, Joel photographed Nabiré, one of the last surviving northern white rhinos, at the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic. A week later, Nabiré was dead. As of this writing, there are now three northern white rhinos left on the planet.
“Half of all species could go by 2100,” said Joel, “and that’s pretty conservative. I think it will be a lot sooner than that.”
A Place for All Species, the Tall and the Small
Elephants and tigers are facing extinction, but you probably didn’t need to be told that. They’re large, they’re exotic and they’re instantly recognizable. But the Photo Ark doesn’t discriminate between its prettiest and its puniest subjects.
At the Plzeň Zoo, Joel said he wondered about the fates of each and every bird that went into his photo box––289 different species in all. About 250 of them were small, rare species without popular conservation campaigns behind them. “Because they’re small and they’re brown and they don’t have horns and tusks,” said Joel. “They’re not big and sexy.”
That’s why Joel is building his Ark, that’s why he endeavors to photograph each animal in its turn, “so their voice will be heard.” Joel gives free copies of his photographs to each of the zoos he visits and frequently speaks and writes on the urgency of conservation.
The man believes that humanity can stave off the sixth extinction, but that requires action: Conscious consumption, carbon reduction, better managed fisheries, habitat conservation and an awareness of what the world is losing. Joel hopes his photos will inspire that shift. If they don’t, the Ark will merely serve as a beautiful catalog of what the Earth used to look like.
“If you swim in this pond every day you can see what’s coming,” he said. “I’m kind of a witness. I’m just standing at a bridge out waving my arms, and if people choose to go over the bridge, I’ve done what I can.”
You can learn more about Joel Sartore and his work by visiting joelsartore.com.