Photographer Joel Sartore is becoming a modern-day Noah with his creation of the National Geographic Photo Ark, a project with the goal to create portraits of the world's captive species before they disappear, and to inspire people everywhere to care. His journey to build the Photo Ark started unconventionally. As a celebrated photographer for National Geographic who traveled the world almost constantly, he found himself on an unexpected hiatus after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"On the days when she felt better, I started going to the Lincoln Children's Zoo about a mile from my house and doing portraits of animals on black or white backgrounds," Sartore told A Plus over the phone. "That was just to have something to do, because I've never really been grounded before."
What started as a way to fill the time soon became a mission to photograph as many animal species in captivity as he could, to raise awareness about their precarious situation. Ten years later, his wife has made a full recovery and is in good health. The project he began while standing by her side has continued during the intervening years, and he has now photographed 5,400 species of the 12,000 he hopes to capture with his lens.
"Some animal species, the last of their kind that the world will ever see, are in zoos right now, and when they grow old and die, that'll be it. It really is a race to try and get to these guys in time. The most difficult thing is that they're very far-flung, there are a ton of species to gather, and each shoot is different, each one requires a little bit of finesse," he explains.
Most of the animals are photographed on either a plain black or white background. This takes away distractions and allows people to see the animals as they are. Though the images are seemingly simple, Sartore says there is one feature in these photographs that makes the animal subjects truly stand out.
"The secret is getting eye contact. People are really affected by eye contact. That's the one thing that really moves people," Sartore explains. "It affects them, and they start to care and they feel compassion. People do want to help, but they have to know there's a need."
Sartore's Photo Ark images have been featured in exhibits around the world. They've even been projected onto the Empire State and United Nations Buildings, captivating millions of people on the streets of New York and illustrating the strength of the Photo Ark and its potential to change minds for the better.
The wonder New Yorkers felt while looking at those animals is not a sensation Sartore himself is immune to. Though he has photographed thousands of animal species, he admits that some affected him on a deeper level than others.
"There are a few animals I knew as a child, that I grew up reading about in school, and we didn't know if they were going to survive. It was three species: the black-footed ferret, the whooping crane, and the California condor," he recalled. "And I got to meet all three of these species up close and personal as part of this project. They were down to 20 individuals each, so the fact that they made it and I got to see them and photograph them…that was a big, huge, emotional thing for me."
The most memorable photo shoot, however, didn't even result in a portrait. Though he had perfectly prepared a white backdrop to photograph chimpanzees at the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kansas, things quickly spiraled out of control.
The fiasco, which he describes only as "The Chimp Incident," can be seen here:
In addition to learning that you can't teach a chimp to appreciate your hard work, the process of collecting images for the Photo Ark has taught Sartore a great deal about animal intellect.
"[Animals] are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. They have high emotions, they have fears, they're joyous and sometimes malicious, and they're just really a lot like us."
In addition to teaching people that these thoughtful, sentient creatures deserve protection, Sartore wants the public to know that to save the animals is also to save ourselves.
"For too long, we've ignored all the species around us, especially the little species. We knew about gorillas, and we knew that elephants and rhinos were in trouble, but we never stopped to consider the mice, the frogs, the salamanders, even the birds. We just don't pay attention to a lot of the other species we share the planet with, but I can tell you that we ignore those species at our peril," cautions Sartore.
"Half of all species could go extinct by 2100, and it's folly to think that you can doom half of all species to extinction and not have it hurt humanity in a very real way. We have to have bees or even flies to pollinate fruits and vegetables. We have to have healthy rain forests to regulate our climate."
"We're on our way to 10 or 11 billion people on this Earth. We have to save big chunks of land [for animals] in order to survive ourselves," he warns.
Though saving all of these species seems like a job too immense for any one person to make a meaningful impact, the good news is that it's not. Every single person has the capacity to make choices that create a huge difference.
"Voting is big. People don't realize this, but they don't have to wait for an election to vote, they vote when they spend money," he advised. "So how are people spending their money? [Are they] spending it on things that help destroy the Earth or help save the Earth?"
Another way people can make a positive change is to raise awareness by sharing information with friends and family. Directly donating to Photo Ark is also a big help. Additional funds allow Sartore to continue to travel the globe, digitally preserving the thousands of animal species that will be lost without concerted human effort.
"It's a very exciting time to be alive, and there's never been a better time to save species because there are so many on the ropes," Sartore said with optimism in his voice. "I'm actually hopeful that [things] won't be as bad as projected, and we'll wise up, start to care, and do more to save species while there's still a real chance. Yeah, I'm very hopeful. Always hopeful."
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(Cover image credit: Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark)