Joel Sartore steadies his camera, rotates a few dials, and unzips the opening to a photo light tent. The camera flashes and all else is still.
He brings his lens back outside, zips up the opening, and angles his camera so his small audience of Conservators’ Center staff can see his photographs.
Little Guy Genet, one of the Center’s lesser known and nocturnal animals, stares out of the camera, perfectly at ease and curious about what just intruded into his new space.
Sartore, a National Geographic contributing photographer and fellow, repositions himself and unzips the opening again. I, along with other Center staff members, watch him carefully, awed by what we are fortunate to witness. I’m holding up my own camera, eager to film the whole process.
Sartore is on a mission.
He created the Photo Ark as a personal project eight years ago. It all started when he began visiting zoos to take pictures of animals against stark white and black backdrops, similar to how fashion and product shots are created. The resulting images “level the playing field,” he explains. “A tortoise counts as much as a rhino.” Sartore started shooting for National Geographic in the same style.
Today, Sartore’s project is much bigger than a personal pastime or a magazine assignment.
“Photo Ark is an effort to get every species in captivity around the world before they’re gone,” he explains. “We stand to lose half of all species by the turn of the next century by extinction. Not if I can help it.”
Sartore, as well as all of us at the Center, hope his style of photography will help viewers look an animal in the eye, learn more about the species, and feel motivated to make a change to save that particular animal.
“For most of what I photograph, I’d say 90 percent of what I photographed so far – about 3,500 species or so – can be saved,” Sartore says. “But we need to meet these animals. Nobody is going to save anything that they don’t know exists.”
That’s what brought him to the Conservators’ Center. His message jibes perfectly with ours. He needed to check off two more species from his to-do list: jungle cat and genet. We fit the bill.
“Joel has discovered a specific niche that fits his great strengths and he’s figured out how to leverage that to bring value to these animals, to make people care about these animals and to make us change our behaviors to help save them,” says Mindy Stinner, co-founder and Executive Director of the Conservators’ Center. “I think that’s what every strong organization or individual who believes in conservation needs to do – identify what impact we can have realistically, how we can leverage it, and how we can best make it work.”
Since Little Guy Genet is nocturnal, this was my first time even seeing him and I have interned at the Center since August 2013. His large pink ears and beautiful coat are something to marvel at. I think he’s a handsome fellow.
“The small animals – when looked at individually and with the detail the photos provide – are just as fascinating as something that may be more charismatic in person, like a lion or tiger,” Stinner says. “Taking a small animal and immortalizing them and putting them out in the world for other people to see and appreciate is critically important to making people care about them. To me, it’s the best thing Joel could ever do for these species.”
The animals Sartore photographed at the Center are very seldom kept in captivity, which is why most people have never heard of them, he points out. But more people are learning about the biodiversity of our planet’s wildlife.
“It was a quick and painless experience and they will live on – they are immortal now,” Sartore says. “They are the ambassadors for their species in the Photo Ark for all time.”
Sartore hopes the Photo Ark will help wake people up to the seriousness of extinction, especially since so many animals are endangered. In fact, according to Endangered Species International, almost 17,000 species are threatened by extinction.
Think of it this way: there are roughly 100,000,000 different species on our planet. The extinction rate each years is just about 0.01%. That seems small, right? Actually, when you do the math, it means we’re losing at least 10,000 species every single year. That’s a big number.
Below is a slideshow of our staff working with Joel Sartore.
In order to make sure people actually know that they have the opportunity to save these species, Sartore’s photos are dispersed around the world. They don’t just go to an archive at National Geographic. They are published in magazines, books, newspapers, documentaries, television shows, billboards, wildlife admission tickets, and on the sides of trolley cars. Sartore’s goal is to ensure the photos are seen. He has even spoken at a TEDx event to spread the word.
He has been to 175 zoos for this project, but never ran across a jungle cat or genet. “Very small carnivores are tough to find in a lot of AZA institutions,” he says. Zoos are like a modern ark, but there are millions of species.
“What are you going to choose?” Sartore asks. For most zoos, the answer lies in whatever the public is familiar with and will pay to see. But even though animals like the jungle cat and genet aren’t as well known as lions and tigers, it doesn’t make them any less important to learn about. “It is folly to think you doom half of all species to extinction and not have it hurt humanity in a terrible way,” he says.
This lands heavily on my lap. I continue filming Sartore as he adjusts his camera slightly. He’s correct. We share the planet with so many other creatures and all of us hang in a delicate balance. Like a wind chime, if one aspect is thrown off balance, it’s sure to impact most, if not all, of the whole system. I, for one, do not want to be responsible for destroying what makes Earth so unique.
Likewise, Sartore hopes his huge compilation of wildlife images doesn’t become a collection of the small and big things humans squandered. People are at a junction where they will see many species leave the planet if they don’t start educating themselves, he says.
“This is life and death,” he says. “It’s not just these animals. It’s all of us.”
Sartore knows that the only way for the Photo Ark to work is if people are inspired enough by the images to take action. And once you see the images, believe me, you will want to learn more about the animals.
“There’s lots of things you can do,” Sartore says. “Support the Conservators’ Center. Come out and visit. Become a volunteer, become a donor. Adopt a binturong or a tiger. Come to the Photo Ark and look around. Tell people about it. ‘Like’ Photo Ark on Facebook. Tweet about it.”
The easiest way to start? Sartore suggests you simply pay attention to and appreciate what’s right in front of you.
by Stephanie Butzer
Communications Intern, Conservators’ Center