Photographer Builds a ‘Photo Ark’ for 6,500 Animal Species And Counting

National Geographic contributing photographer Joel Sartore is 11 years into a 25-year endeavor to document every captive animal species in the world using studio lighting and black-and-white backgrounds. So far, he’s photographed 6,500 different species, which leaves approximately 6,000 to go.

Sartore tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that presenting the animals in the studio, rather than in nature, gives them equal importance in the eye of the viewer. “A mouse is every bit as glorious as an elephant, and a tiger beetle is every bit as big and important as a tiger,” he says. “It’s a great equalizer.”

Sartore chronicles his project in the new photography book, The Photo Ark. The ultimate goal of his project is to help ensure that the future existence of his subjects, many of which are either endangered or on the verge of extinction.

“I’ve been a National Geographic photographer for 27 years, and I photographed the first 15 years or so out in the wild doing different conservation stories, on wolves, on grizzly bears, on koalas all in the wild — and can I say that moved the needle enough to stop the extinction crisis? No, no it did not,” Sartore says. “So I just figured maybe very simple portraits lit exquisitely so you can see the beauty and the color, looking animals directly in the eye with no distractions would be the way to do it.”

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Interview Highlights

On what it takes to photograph animals in captivity

There’s millions of species in the wild and there’s about 12,000, maybe 13,000, animals in captivity … in human care at zoos, aquariums, wild life rehab centers (where they take injured and orphaned wildlife in and raise them and let them go again) and also at private breeders. …

This lush book of photography represents National Geographic’s Photo Ark, a major cross-platform initiative and lifelong project by photographer Joel Sartore to make portraits of the world’s animals–especially those that are endangered. His powerful message, conveyed with humor, compassion, and art: to know these animals is to save them.
Sartore intends to photograph every animal in captivity in the world. He is circling the globe, visiting zoos and wildlife rescue centers to create studio portraits of 12,000 species, with an emphasis on those facing extinction. He has photographed more than 6,000 already and now, thanks to a multi-year partnership with National Geographic, he may reach his goal. This book showcases his animal portraits: from tiny to mammoth, from the Florida grasshopper sparrow to the greater one-horned rhinoceros. Paired with the eloquent prose of veteran wildlife writer Douglas Chadwick, this book presents a thought-provoking argument for saving all the species of our planet.

The reality is that the animals that are in captivity around the world, they are used to people. They’ve been around people their whole lives, born and raised. And so it’s just much easier to convince them to come into a room and most of the time, we shift animals into a room that has been prepped with black and white … paint or cloth or paper. And then we feed them during the shoot, and it takes a few minutes, and then they leave. So most of the time they just think they’re coming in to get lunch by the time I get there.

The majority of these animals are not tame, they’re not trained, but they’ve been living in human care for many years, and for many of the species, Terry, they only exist in zoos and aquariums now. They don’t live in the wild anymore. A lot of the species that you see in The Photo Ark would be extinct by now if it weren’t for captive breeding programs.

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Saving Species Through the Power of Photography

The interaction of animals with their environments is the engine that keeps the planet healthy for all of us. But for many species, time is running out. That’s why National Geographic, along with photographer Joel Sartore, is dedicated to finding solutions to save them.

With your support, we’re documenting every species in captivity to inspire people to care and help protect these animals. You’re also helping fund on-the-ground conservation projects focused on those species in most critical need of protection, as well as education programs that are fostering a real connection with, and appreciation for, our fellow creatures.

This multiyear effort will create intimate portraits of an estimated 12,000 species of birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. Once completed, Photo Ark will serve as an important record of each animal’s existence, and a powerful testament to the importance of saving them.

Creating Portraits of Hope

National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore started the Photo Ark in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1995. Since then, he has visited 40 countries in his quest to create this photo archive of global biodiversity.

To date, Joel has completed portraits of more than 6,000 species, most photographed on either a plain black or white background. No matter its size, each animal is treated with the same amount of affection and respect. The results are portraits that are not just stunningly beautiful, but also intimate and moving. “It’s the eye contact that moves people,” Sartore says of the animals’ expressions. “It engages … feelings of compassion and a desire to help.”

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About Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore is a photographer, speaker, author, teacher, conservationist, National Geographic fellow, and a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine. His hallmarks are a sense of humor and a Midwestern work ethic.

Joel Sartore started the Photo Ark in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. Since then, Sartore, a world-renowned photographer has visited 40 countries in his quest to create this photo archive of global biodiversity.

To date, Joel has completed portraits of more than 6,000 species, most photographed on either a plain black or white background. No matter its size, each animal is treated with the same amount of affection and respect. The results are portraits that are not just stunningly beautiful, but also intimate and moving. “It’s the eye contact that moves people,” Sartore says of the animals’ expressions. “It engages … feelings of compassion and a desire to help.”

Sartore has written several books, including RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species, Photographing Your Family, and Nebraska: Under a Big Red Sky. His most recent book is Let’s Be Reasonable.

In addition to the work he has done for National Geographic, Sartore has contributed to Audubon magazine, Time, Life, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, and numerous book projects. Sartore and his work have been the subjects of several national broadcasts, including National Geographic’s Explorer, the NBC Nightly News, NPR’s Weekend Edition, and an hourlong PBS documentary, At Close Range. He is also a regular contributor on the CBS Sunday Morning show with Charles Osgood.

Sartore graduated from the University of Nebraska with a degree in journalism. He currently lives in Nebraska with his wife and three children.

Joel Sartore and his images are represented by National Geographic’s internal talent and stock agency NatGeoCreative.

 

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