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Joel Sartore: A Mission to Photograph and Save Species

Joel Sartore: A Mission to Photograph and Save Species

For Joel Sartore, photography is more than a career; it's a calling. He has made it his life's work to photograph every species on the planet and encourage people to look into their eyes before they disappear to extinction. At the time of this interview, his project, The Photo Ark (established in 2005), contained images of 11,309 species, and that number continues to climb daily.

Joel's vast portfolio of imagery is as stunning and inspiring as the mission behind it. With this article, we hope to aid in our small way his quest to bring more attention to this crisis by telling Joel's story, learning more about how he sets up his shoots, and discussing how the Coronavirus has impacted his project.

A portrait of Joel Sartore taken in Lincoln, Nebraska.

A pair of red wolves, Canis rufus gregoryi, at the Great Plains Zoo.           

“I’ve always thought that having a long-term personal project is a great way to stay inspired all the way through a photographic life. In the case of the Photo Ark, the story goes like this:

I’d been a contract photographer for National Geographic Magazine, doing some 30 stories over 17 years, all in the field. Then, during a story about Alaska’s North Slope, my wife, Kathy, got breast cancer.

I went home to take care of her and our three young children and stayed for a year until she healed from chemo and radiation. It’s been 16 years, and she’s fine now, but during that year at home, I had a chance to really think about what I should do with the second half of my life. I really wanted to try and move the needle on conservation as much as possible and figured that focusing on a single photo project over 20 to 25 years might be my best shot.  I'm a big fan of John James Audubon and Edward Curtis, both of whom gave their full measure of devotion to focusing on a single topic in a certain way and with persistence for all of their adult lives. Their work survives today because of that.”

A Coquerel's sifaka, Propithecus coquereli, at the Houston Zoo.

A federally threatened koala, Phascolarctos cinereus, with her babies at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital.

“And so, images of all creatures, great and small, became my path forward. Shot simply using studio lighting on black and white backgrounds, this allows me to remove all distractions, concentrating on each animal, hoping to get eye contact whenever possible. And since there’s no size comparison possible, a mouse is every bit as large (and important) as an elephant.”

“In a very real sense, the Photo Ark was built for the animals you’ve never heard of; the toads, newts, sparrows, and even earthworms. Creatures that are small and live in soil or muddy water, the ones who would never have their voices heard before they go extinct. That’s where I come in.”

Two Golden snub-nosed monkeys, Rhinopithecus roxellana, at Ocean Park Hong Kong.

An endangered Malayan tiger, Panthera tigris jacksoni, at Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo.

When we asked about how the Coronavirus has impacted his project; Joel explained that:

“Since I worked primarily at zoos, aquariums, wildlife rehab centers, and private breeders, the pandemic did slow things down at first. But since the goal of the Ark is to showcase biodiversity in all its forms, something unexpected happened once the weather warmed up.  I’d never really thought about there being an entire world of life forms gathered around my porch lights at night, but there they were. So I began doing non-stop insect shoots from June through October, and this pushed me nearly to the 11,000-species mark, if not beyond. We’re still putting names on things, so we won’t know what the count will be until my biologist friends get a look at everything, but it's very exciting, especially since invertebrates form the foundation of all life on Earth. So, you could say that the pandemic shooting filled a major hole in the Ark.”

“I always say that my favorite species to shoot is the next one, and it’s so true. I’m just as excited about photographing a butterfly as I am a tiger. I have to be, really, since the Photo Ark celebrates life in all its forms. Rare or common, big or small, we love them all.”

We were curious about Joel’s go-to equipment and the portability to set up every time he photographs a new species:

“The setup is completely portable. I’ve worked in the wild with bird banding crews, photographed a cobra in someone’s spare bedroom, a nearly-extinct fly in a van, you name it. The common thread is that the Elinchrom lights are used each and every time I shoot. If I’m in the field, I’ve got a portable generator to power the lights. I use small cloth tents to contain flighty subjects like birds, lizards, rodents, etc. For aquatic animals, I have a variety of photo tanks with black and white liners. If the animal is too big for even my largest photo tent, then we ask the zoo to prep an off-exhibit space in black, white, or both. For these, I use four or even five Elinchrom lights.”

A federally endangered Florida panther, Puma concolor coryi, at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo.

A pygmy slow loris, Nycticebus pygmaeus, at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

“Each animal is so different, so we vary the lighting to fit the subject, but generally speaking, I use a three-light set for smaller animals in my photo tent; one over the top and one on each side. Each light passes through a softbox to reduce harshness/soften the look, and a grid on the front keeps the light directional and focused. It took me a while to learn the importance of using grids. I guess I eventually had enough flare in my lens.

The use of strobes is important for several reasons. First, we can shoot sparingly, just a few frames per animal, knowing the burst is fast enough to freeze movement. The lights don’t really generate heat, which keeps animals cooler and reduces stress. Plus, it’s a true source of white light, meaning it’s not shifting warm or blue, so when the strobes go off, we can see what the animal really looks like. Over the years, I’ve had a lot of zookeepers tell me they had no idea their animals looked like that.”

Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

After a photoshoot at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, a clouded leopard cub climbs on Sartore’s head. The leopards, which live in Asian tropical forests, are illegally hunted for their spotted pelts.

A critically endangered African white-backed vulture, Gyps africanus, at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
                                            

“My goal is to photograph every captive species in the world. And we’re getting there. Another ten to 15 years should do it.”

“I’m not doing the Photo Ark just to have something to do. I’m actually hoping this will get the public to care about something other than politics, sports, and the price of gas and inspire folks to save the planet while there’s still time. If we keep consuming all the Earth’s resources, we’re on track to lose half of all species by the turn of the next century. It’s folly to think that we can doom all those other species to oblivion but that we humans will be just fine. It’s not going to work that way. We need vast tracts of intact rainforest to regulate the rainfall we need to grow crops. We need arctic areas to stay frozen to cool our planet. We need healthy seas as well, for a myriad of reasons.”

“The good news is that more people become aware of all the things we can do with each passing year, from planting a pollinator garden to save bees and butterflies, to stop pouring poisons on our lawns, to knowing that every penny we spend moves the needle one way or another. You’re voting each time you break out your purse or your wallet; you’re saying to a retailer, ‘Do this again.’. That’s the power to change the world, tied directly to our purchasing decisions.”

An endangered baby Bornean orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus, named Aurora, with her adoptive mother, Cheyenne, a Bornean/Sumatran cross, Pongo pygmaeus x abelii, at the Houston Zoo.

A Fiji Island banded iguana, Brachylophus fasciatus, at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Three critically endangered, yearling Burmese star tortoises, Geochelone platynota, at the Turtle Conservancy.

Joel Sartore’s current lighting kit includes:

  • Compact ELC Pro HD 1000

    $1,449.99More infoAdd to cart

    Compact ELC Pro HD 1000

    EL20616.1

    Lightning fast recycling times (1.2s at full power!), Swiss precision of power output and color temperature consistency and super fast flash duration (up to 1/5260s) combined in one unit. Furthermore, an OLED screen displays every control for the most professional user experience. 

    $1,449.99
    QTY
    Add to cart

  • Rotalux Squarebox 70 cm (27")

    $149.95More infoAdd to cart

    Rotalux Squarebox 70 cm (27")

    EL26642

    Ideal for head and shoulder portraits, products or for use in small spaces. The catchlight can be similar to windows.


    The Elinchrom 27 x 27" (69 x 69 cm) Rotalux Softbox is designed to be a featherweight box features a matte-black crinkle exterior with distinctive gray rip-piping and a reflective silver interior. The shoot-through design uses both a removable internal baffle and removable, flush-mounted front face to soften the light.


    Shape:
    The 27 x 27" (70 x 70 cm) square shape is ideal for head-and-shoulders portraiture, as a hairlight for groups or for reflective products and glassware.

    Quick Setup, Breakdown:
    Lightweight, dedicated speedrings utilize knurled, spring-action sockets to connect the four stainless rods which form the frame of the box.

    Storage:
    Fits assembled but de-tensioned in the included case, ready to set up again in seconds.

    $149.95
    QTY
    Add to cart

  • Rotalux Rectatbox 60x80cm

    $149.95More infoAdd to cart

    Rotalux Rectatbox 60x80cm

    EL26640

    The Elinchrom 24 x 31.5"" (60 x 80 cm) Rotalux Softbox is designed to be a general purpose sofbox. The featherweight box features a matte-black crinkle exterior with distinctive gray rip-piping and a reflective silver interior. The shoot-through design uses both a removable internal baffle and removable, flush-mounted front diffuser to soften the light.

    This softbox is useful for general purpose photography like portraits and product photography. It is mainly used because of its shape and size as it provides extra flexibility in placement.


    Shape:

    The 24 x 31.5"" (60 x 80 cm) rectangular shape is ideal for head-and-shoulders portraiture, as a hairlight for groups or for reflective products and glassware.

    Quick Setup, Breakdown:

    Lightweight, dedicated speedrings utilize knurled, spring-action sockets to connect the four stainless rods which form the frame of the box.

    Storage:

    Fits assembled but de-tensioned in the included case, ready to set up again in seconds.

    $149.95
    QTY
    Add to cart

To see more of Joel’s work and to keep up on his future projects:
Find him on Instagram at @joelsartore and read more about his Photo Ark project on his website www.joelsartore.com.

Joel is also a  regular contributor to Nat Geo, The New York Times, and the Smithsonian; and has appeared on NBC Nightly News, the CBS Sunday Morning Show, ABC's Nightline, NPR's Weekend Edition, PBS Newshour, 60 Minutes, and The Today Show to speak on his progress for the Photo Ark.

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