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"Do We Care?" National Geographic Photographer Joel Sartore Explains His Life's Work in NatGeo Wild's 'Photo Ark'
October 16, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments

At its heart, the Photo Ark is one man's 25-year mission to save the world's wildlife, one photo at a time.

Somewhere along the way, though, veteran photojournalist and National Geographic Fellow Joel Sartore realized his life's ambition to take a portrait photo of every single animal species remaining on planet Earth was no longer a celebration but an urgent necessity.

To date, Sartore has photographed 10,531 species, often in controlled conditions. Sartore aims for a face-on portrait and uses a white or black backdrop to emphasize an animal's features and facial expression by creating the optical illusion of a three-dimensional effect. For that reason, most of his portrait photos are taken in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, with the assistance of zoo staff and a small team of helpers. Trying to photograph rare animals in the wild — finding them first, let alone catching them in light good enough for a portrait photo worthy of Karsh or Annie Leibovitz — would be a fool's errand and would take many lifetimes.

Sartore's images are stored online, for posterity and future generations, recorded in books and, starting this weekend, film and television. Photo Ark, a two-part special, will air on consecutive Saturdays (10/17 and 10/24) on NatGeo Wild at 10 p.m. ET. The program follows Sartore as he crisscrosses the globe, camera gear in hand, shielding his lens —not always successfully — against the pecking of angry birds and the lightning strikes of spitting cobras. One of the ironies is that even in a world where zoos are fairly common and easy to find, no one zoo — or even 100 zoos — has a specimen of every animal species alive today. And so Sartore wanders the continents in search of the perfect portrait.

It wasn't always this way. Sartore had established himself as a reliable, bona fide photojournalist in the field, but one day in 2013, when his wife was diagnosed with a potentially fatal recurrence of breast cancer and their son, then 18, was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin lymphoma, he racked his brains for a lifelong project that would keep him closer to home, that would become a life's passion, and that would outlast his remaining days on planet Earth. He was struck with the idea of creating a metaphorical ark for the 21st century, a photographic lifeboat filled with images of animals, incorporating recent breakthroughs in modern photo technology and computer archiving to stem the tide of species extinction.

"To give one's full measure of devotion to a cause we believe in," he says simply, "if that's not the very definition of a life well-lived, it should be."

And so he began taking images, one by one.

One day, though, he realized that some of the more than 10,000 animals he had already photographed had gone extinct, just in the relatively short time he began taking portrait photos. It was then he realized that what he was doing was of vital importance, to humanity and to the future of a green Earth. Photo Ark uses the power of photography to inspire people to help those remaining species at risk before it's too late. Sartore is only two-thirds of the way to his life's goal of 15,000 species, give or take.

"We find ourselves arriving at this late hour…with much work ahead," he says.

There was Bill Whitaker's profile last year on 60 Minutes, numerous TEDx talks, and countless National Geographic Live! speaking engagements, but this weekend's Photo Ark for NatGeo Wild is his first opportunity to hold a global audience for two hours and show exactly what we are in danger of losing as a species.

One of the reasons Sartore chooses to photograph animals against a blank white or black backdrop is that the perspective is the same for all species, a level playing field. The tiny güiña appears to be just as big as a Siberian tiger — democracy in action. Every species is equal. Every species is of equal value.

"It starts with a single animal," Sartore explains. "Then, before you know it, (you're) thinking about saving the whole planet and all that's in it. You understand how everything is interconnected and that the landscapes and seas needed by other animals are needed by we humans as well. In other words, as other species go away, so could we."

This past May, Sartore announced he had just recorded his 10,000th species: a güiña, the smallest wildcat in the Americas, which he photographed at Fauna Andina, a wildlife reserve in Chile. The photo was a milestone nearly 15 years in the making.

In a conference call with TV reviewers this past summer, Sartore — asked by TV Worth Watching how he staves off depression when he realizes so many animals he has photographed have already vanished for good — paused for a moment's reflection and then said quietly, "I'm inspired all the time by the people that I meet — I call them wildlife heroes — people I meet who work in obscurity. They're not on television; they're not talking to you guys. They're just trying to save species. They focus on one particular type of animal, or a habitat in a region, and they never give up. They're not thinking about what the world's going to look like 50 or 100 years from now. We know it's going to be pretty much overrun with humans. They just think, 'What can I do today?  What's the best I can do today?'

"And that's how I view it, too. What are the animals that I can tell a great story about and get the world to care while there's still time to save species? So, I'm fired up. And so are the people that I work with. It's easy to get psyched up when you're around people who lift you up like that." 
Sartore has not allowed the COVID-19 pandemic to slow him down.

"The crew is usually me, and if I'm working in a foreign country, it's an interpreter guide. In the U.S. usually, I'm by myself…. We're as busy as ever. The Photo Ark moves forward, and it's important stuff. It really is.

"I don't get depressed. I get sad. I also get angry. I think, well, I need to do all I can to try to save these species. There's no choice, really."

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Amidst his journey, seasoned photojournalist and esteemed National Geographic Fellow, Joel Sartore, came to a profound realization. What once began as a passionate pursuit to capture portraits of every surviving animal species on our planet evolved into a compelling call to action—an imperative born not of mere celebration, but of dire urgency.
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