Interview

Joel Sartore: “The little things really run the planet.”

The American photographer on disappearing species, boisterous chimps and flesh-eating parasites
By Graeme Green
Joel Sartore is a National Geographic photographer and the founder of the Photo Ark, a 25-year project to document every species living in the world’s zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, sounding an alarm for endangered and disappearing species. He’s currently photographed around 10,000 of them.

Which is easier: a photography project of this size, or building an actual ark?

I don’t know. I’m tired out just thinking of it.

You’re 14 years into a massive long-term project. Is there part of you that wonders sometimes why you started this?

Yes. I think about that but the commonality between National Geographic photographers is not our educational backgrounds or where we’re from. We are all pretty independent and driven.

I had done 17 years in the field for National Geographic magazine, 30 stories in all, and that didn’t really do a lot for conservation. A couple of the stories moved the needle, but not enough.

Then my wife got breast cancer. She’s fine today, but that was 15 years ago and she was pretty sick with chemo and radiation, so I stayed home for a year. When she was on the mend, I started taking pictures of whatever I could around Lincoln, Nebraska where I live. We have a little local children’s zoo, but it was kind of hard to see some of the animals, so I asked them to take out a couple and put them on black or white backgrounds. I didn’t start out to get everything but it sure turned into something major.

I’ll be glad when I can finish. I’ve been going at it for about 14 years. I think I’ve got another 10 years to go. We keep plugging away.

Endangered Florida panther by Joel Sartore/National Geographic/Photo Ark

What you went through with your wife focussed your mind?

It did. I was 42 at the time. I really admired the work of Edward Curtis who documented the Native American tribes around the U.S. the American west for most of his adult life, and John James Audubon, the famous wildlife illustrator, people who gave their full measure of devotion to one thing. I thought, “If Cathy gets better, that’s for me.” I just wanted to concentrate on one thing.

One of the great things the project does is highlight smaller, less well-known, less iconic species.

Yes. If you’re in conservation, if you’re in the natural world, you know that the little things really run the planet. You think about the work that ants do, for example. Ants clean up the planet like crazy. So do scavengers, vultures or dung beetles. We have a tremendously, complicated and vast system for constantly recycling waste and turning it into living matter again, and those really are important, every bit as important as the lion or the tiger, the top line, charismatic mammals that people see.

I’m really invested in fresh water stream fish, little minnows. I’m invested in rodents that can live out in desserts with extreme temperature and very little moisture. I’m interested in little brown birds that nobody really pays any attention to, which might be on the decline or may be on the upswing. I am interested in all of it.

I really want to try to share with the world what biodiversity looks like at this point of time, while we still have most of what we arrived here with through evolutionary time. It all matters, and the small stuff, I would argue, matters most.

Endangered baby Bornean orangutan with her adoptive mother by Joel Sartore/National Geographic/Photo Ark

How much do you see the Photo Ark as documenting animals before they disappear and how much do you hope it might actually help stop some of those creatures from going extinct?

The motivating force isn’t to create a big archive of what we are going to throw away. It is truly to get the world to care and do something about it. When we save all these species, we are saving ourselves, because we have to have a functioning, healthy planet to grow our food and to have good air to breathe and to have timely amounts of rain for water. It’s all tied together.

It’s not easy because people want to over-exploit everything. This is the big question: on our way to 10 or 11 billion humans, will we be smart enough to save vast tracks of habitat to regulate our air and our water and our rainfall patterns, fish in the seas, coral reefs…? Will we be smart enough to save the life support systems for not just these animals, but for us? We are animals too.

I don’t really think about what the world is going to look like in 100 years or 50. I just think, “What can I do? What can I do with my life, if I dedicate my life to this? What can I do that will maybe help?” Our function is to educate and introduce people to these animals, so that hopefully they will fall in love with them as I have.

Long-eared jerboa by Joel Sartore/National Geographic/Photo Ark

Have you seen examples where your photos or stories have stopped an animal from going extinct?

Just a couple directly, so far: a sparrow and a beetle, two very small things. They are not out of the woods yet, but we’re pretty sure they might be extinct by now if we hadn’t raised the alarm and got a lot public input and motivated the government to reinforce the Endangered Species Act here.

I wish it would happen more often. I’m very hopeful we can put conservation top of mind for the public.

Golden snub-nosed monkeys by Joel Sartore/National Geographic/Photo Ark

Which animal that you’ve photographed has been the most difficult?

Worst-behaved would be chimpanzees, because they’re smart, aggressive, strong, fast… I tried getting a nice intimate picture several times of chimpanzees and they just destroyed the background. When I started out with the Photo Ark, I would use paper backgrounds. You don’t use paper backgrounds with chimps. That’s just foolishness. I still don’t have a good picture of an adult chimp. Chimps are pretty tough.

You’ve dedicated your life to conserving species, but sometimes the natural world fights back. I heard you got attacked by a flesh-eating parasite…

Yes. I did a story on Madidi National Park in Bolivia and we were in a blind for about 10 days up on a platform, surrounded by camouflage, trying to photograph pigs that would come into a clay lick for minerals. We all got eaten pretty bad by insects. We didn’t have any mosquito nets. We just slept out in the open, and I got bitten by a female Phlebotomus sand fly that carries leishmaniasis. It injected me with this thing, so I got mucocutaneous leishmaniasis, which is a parasite that eats holes in you

It really did a number on my leg, so I had to get a heavy metal IV through a pick line that goes in near the top chamber of your heart to disperse the chemicals quickly through your blood stream, because its corrosive to veins. You get that for an hour a day for a month or so, and then the wounds heal up.

Endangered Malayan tiger by Joel Sartore/National Geographic/Photo Ark

Was that as much ‘fun’ as it sounds?

More. It was an impressive hole too, but I’m healed up now. We try to take every precaution on assignment, every vaccination, but stuff happens when you are out there. It’s the old saying: bad stuff happens to everybody but it’s what you do with it. If you want to be a National Geographic photographer, you stand right back up and you get to work. There is no time for moping and they can’t publish your excuses, so we just get at it.

That’s the big thing: you don’t give up.


Photos by Joel Sartore / National Geographic / Photo Ark.

Joel Sartore’s website: www.joelsartore.com.

Joel Sartore’s book, The Photo Ark book, is out now, published by National Geographic:

National Geographic website: nationalgeographic.org.

Follow Joel Sartore on Instagram: @joelsartore.

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist: www.graeme-green.com.

Listen to the Joel Sartore NEW BIG 5 PODCAST here.

Please SHARE this interview.

NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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