The International Union for Conservation of Nature reported that there were more than 30,000 species threatened with extinction as of 2019. Admittedly, many of those animals species are things you’ve never heard of and will probably never see—but their presence plays a role in the overall ecosystem and circle of life, their absence will have repercussions that impact the world around us. In the two-part series “Photo Ark” from Nat Geo, photographer Joel Sartore strives to raise awareness of these species, while also archiving them just in case. Sartore calls it “A snap shot of life on Earth before these species disappear.”
Origin of Photo Ark Project
The concept of capturing these animals on film began humbly enough. I had an opportunity to speak with Joel Sartore about “Photo Ark” and how he got started, as well as where things are now and the value he believes the project brings to the world.
After travelling extensively as a Nat Geo photographer, Sartore had to take a break to take care of his family. Eventually, he wanted to dust off his camera and find that creative spark again—but he wanted to do so while staying local in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. So, he started to work with the local zoo, capturing photos of the wildlife.
That was 15 years, 60 countries, and 10,000 species ago. What started as a simple project to get out of the house and start taking photographs again has evolved into a mission to create a photo archive of the beauty and diversity of life on Earth.
Joel told me when we spoke, “We don’t save what we don’t love, and we won’t fall in love if we don’t connect.”
That sums up the drive behind “Photo Ark”. People in general don’t want to see creatures suffer or go extinct, but there is also a very heavy element of “Out of sight, out of mind.”
One of the things that I find most interesting about “Photo Ark” is the way Sartore normalizes or standardizes the images. Regardless of the size or habitat of the creature in question, all of the images capture for Photo Ark depict them at roughly the same size and against a plain black or white background. It keeps the focus on the creature itself, and simultaneously sends a subtle message that all of these creatures are equal when it comes to their role in their ecosystems and the impact we would face if we lost them.
Unique Challenges of Capturing Wildlife Photos
As it turns out, wildlife creatures are not always cooperative when you’re trying to capture their photos. Along the way, Sartore has had to deal with a wide variety of challenging situations. He has put himself in potentially dangerous situations and suffered through many hours of frustration and discomfort to try and get the right photo.
I asked him which animal has been the most challenging. His response was the chimpanzee. He said the combination of intelligence, strength, and mischief make chimpanzees exceptionally tough subjects. It’s like trying to get a good picture of a toddler—if the toddler could also swing from the ceiling or break your arm.
To capture the right image, Sartore has had to improvise and adapt. There is a big difference between photographing tiger cubs or Sumatran rhinos, and capturing marine life like the short-finned pilot whale, or a tiny creature like the Socorro Isopod. It takes the right combination of creativity, technology, patience, and perseverance.
Joel is an optimist. He believes that these species are worth saving, and he believes that mankind is capable of saving them. He hopes that “Photo Ark” and the images he captures can help to establish an emotional connection and provide incentive for people to get involved and be active in efforts to recover habitats, preserve species, and protect our climate.
Tune in tonight for part two of the two-part series. “Photo Ark” premiers on Nat Geo Wild at 10pm Eastern / 9pm Central.