Joel Sartore believes art can save the world.
One species at a time.
“I really care about things that we want to say are the least among us. The small things that nobody pays any attention to,” he said. “Freshwater mussels, I’ll photograph ’em so that they look like they have faces. Whatever it takes. Why? Because 75 to 80 percent of our freshwater mussels in this country are threatened or endangered or functionally extinct. They’re in real trouble, and that indicates bad water quality, doesn’t it? And I drink water, and I care.”
Born in Ponca City, the esteemed photographer has been contributing to National Geographic for about 25 years. For the past nine, Sartore, 52, also has been building an ark, although not the wooden kind.
His Photo Ark is the largest collection of studio-quality animal portraits in the world — and he’s only about a third of the way to completing it. Sartore’s goal is to capture images of all 10,000 to 12,000 captive animal species on the planet, from tiny Salt Creek tiger beetles to massive Indian rhinoceroses. Not only does he want to give people a true picture, so to speak, of biodiversity, but he also wants to raise awareness of the number of species in peril.
The longtime Nebraska resident’s dual interests in animals and photography began when he was a child and his mother got him a Time-Life picture book on birds. He was especially taken by the image of Martha, the last of the extinct passenger pigeons.
“The passenger pigeon numbered in the billions — billions of birds — flocks that would last three days flying 60 miles per hour, as (naturalist and painter John James) Audubon described it. And we market-hunted them to extinction. This last bird died in 1914. Coming up September of this year will be the 100th anniversary. So, I never got over that, and I never forgot that,” he said.
When his wife, Kathy, was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago, the globe-trotting photographer stayed home for about a year while she went through chemotherapy. For the first time in his career, Sartore couldn’t travel, and that gave him time to think about where he wanted to take his art.
“On the days when she felt better and the kids were in school, I would go down to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo and start taking pictures on black and white backgrounds. And I just did that until she got better again,” he said. “After a while, my editor at National Geographic, the natural history editor there, called and said, ‘What have you been doing?’ And I showed her some portraits, and she said, ‘Why don’t you do a story like that?’”
The first story to rely on his new portrait style showcased the wide array of flora and fauna protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The story spun off a 2010 photo book titled “Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species,” as well as a traveling photography exhibition of the same name.