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INTERVIEW: "National Geographic" Photographer Joel Sartore On Documenting The World’s Wildlife, Conservation Through Art, And More

Nicole Barylski

A federally endangered Florida panther, Puma concolor coryi, at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. © (Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Years ago, National Geographic photographer, Fellow, and 2018 Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year Joel Sartore embarked on a noble quest to document every species living in the world's zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, with the hope of raising awareness for issues impacting wildlife and their habitats and finding solutions to these conundrums.

To date, Sartore has taken portraits of over 9,000 species. Southampton Arts Center, in partnership with the International Center of Photography, will showcase a selection of these pieces through National Geographic Photo Ark by Joel Sartore.

We caught up with Sartore to learn more about the project, photographing wildlife, conservation through art, and more.

Tell me a little bit about the inspiration for the National Geographic Photo Ark?

JS: Well, the inspiration came after I was a contract photographer for National Geographic magazine for about 17 years. I'd been all over the world photographing lots of different subjects, but mostly conservation stories - from lions and elephants in Uganda to jaguars in South America, oil spills, you name it. Then my wife got breast cancer, she was down for almost a year with chemo and radiation. We had three little kids at home, so my globe trotting days were over. As I stayed home, and she got better, she's fine now, I was thinking about something I could do that would be more permanent. I was 42 at the time and, so I figured my life was half done, my career, certainly, and I wondered what I could do that would last longer than a one month magazine story and get people to care about conservation. So these real simple portraits on black and white backgrounds came about that way. I didn't start out thinking I was going to photograph every captive species in the world, but it's grown to that. Really, this wouldn't have happened had she not got sick, because I just started photographing, on the days she felt better, animals in my local zoo, Lincoln Children's Zoo, and then Omaha, Kansas City, Des Moines, Oklahoma City, Wichita, any place I could drive to in my Prius with all my gear - that's how it started.

How many years have you been working on the project now?

JS: About 13.

Where has this multiyear effort to document every species living in the world's zoos and wildlife sanctuaries taken you so far?

JS: Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil, all over North America, and we just keep going, Western Europe, just all over the place, as much we can.

What are some of the areas that you've yet to visit?

JS: We're going to go to Borneo, Indonesia again, because it's such a vast place. We'll go back to Brazil, probably go to Argentina, Chile, Peru, I would imagine - just every place that's got species that are unique, Japan, a lot more in the Pacific Rim and certainly a lot more in Europe, Western Europe including Germany. The key is to find collections that I don't already have, but I pretty much exhausted U.S. inventories. So now we have to go further to get fewer. We're almost at 10,000 species now and we'll probably be at 10,000 species by the turn of the year. The goal is really to get every species in captivity, or in human care, we say around the world. What that's going to look like, we think, is another ten years minimum and probably another 5,000 species.

What goes into finding these species?

JS: We have a pretty good network of people that work at zoos and in conservation. We also have a taxonomist in France who really knows what zoo collections look like around the world. That's his thing, it's all he's done for a long time. As I get asked to speak someplace, or we find a specific animal, super rare, like a Borneo Rhino, we'll build a trip around that. We'll reach out to all the zoos and private breeders and wildlife rehabbers in that area before we go, and we'll ask them, "What do you have in your collection?" And then they'll send us a list and we'll say, "Well, we need these 30." And they'll say, "Well, we can do these 20, these 20 will be available." We'll say, "Okay." And that's basically how we do it. It's slightly random at times, but it's also very targeted, as well, when we think about the rarest species and where we need to go quickly. We photograph rare and common species both because we don't know what's going to be gone in 50 years. It all counts and we document everything from ants to elephants, really.

With you completing nearly 10,000 portraits, what will the exhibition at Southampton Art Center encompass and how did you decide what to include?

JS: The exhibition's going to focus mainly on animals around the world - to give us color and diversity and show body shapes and adaptations. But, there's also going to be quite a few animals from New York so people can see what native wildlife looks like, or looked like before people crowded everything.

Have you come across any pressing issues that are impacting wildlife in their habitats in multiple areas that you visited?

JS: I have, you know, one of the biggest threats is the ornamental lawn, the grass - people's lawns, because we pour poison all over it. And they're completely sterile. They look pretty to people, but we're running out of time for pollinating insects. And we really need to convince people to quit putting poison or chemicals of any kind on their lawn because there's consequences - people end up drinking that stuff, it goes into the groundwater. Not to mention the fact that if we lose pollinators, bees and butterflies, we're going to lose fruits and vegetables, or at least the ability to produce them cheaply. In big parts of China, where they've lost their habitat, they've lost their nectar bearing plants and they've used chemicals heavily, they have to hand pollinate fruits and vegetables with bowls of pollen and paintbrushes. We do not want to end up there, but we're headed there. So I always tell people you know, there's two really good quick things that you can do to save species. One is support your local zoo, aquarium, National Geographic as well, any conservation group that's doing good work. And the other is to quit putting poisoning everywhere outside your home.

We don't think of it that way. But it is hundred percent the case and with those big lawns in Southampton, this is a huge thing people could do - is to quit putting poison out on their lawn, quit fertilizing, quit putting insecticide, fungicide that have consequences, very big consequences.

What are some of the most challenging aspects of shooting wildlife?

JS: Well, the wildlife doesn't really care whether I work for National Geographic or not, so it doesn't tend to do what I want it to do. It's a challenge, but it's also pretty satisfying when you get pictures that look like everybody was a willing participant, you know. We go for eye contact, and that's not always possible. Some of these animals don't have eyes like anemones or jellyfish, coral. But, for the most part, the challenge is mainly in working with zoos, making sure we have animals that would be okay with having their pictures taken, and then trying to get a little moment out of the shoot that may last only a minute or two. Most of the time, if we can get some eye contact, that's mission accomplished.

Some shoots are longer than others, but we don't want to stress animals and we want to get the shoots done quickly. That's the biggest challenge is to just get some eye contact and shift the animal back out into its enclosure.

Do you have a favorite subject so far?

JS: I always say the favorite is the next one, you know, because I can't show favorites. These animals are all like my kids. And for most of the animals, most of them are small. They're not all tigers and gorillas, most of them are small - minnows, sparrows, salamanders, that kind of thing. This is the only time a lot of them will ever have their picture taken alive. For many of them, they're photographed to study skins or for museums by some grad students working on them. We try to realize that this might be the only chance this animal ever has to have its voice heard and have its story told and, and get people interested in it. That's a big responsibility, but it's one we really take pride in.

What's the most gratifying part about capturing all these different species?

JS: That remains to be seen. The gratifying part for me would be if the world wakes up and realizes that we're on track to loose half of all species now by the turn of the century, that is going to have dire consequences for our children and grandchildren. So, I mean, the most gratifying part will be if people see the work, fall in love with the animals and want to learn more about how they can save planet, consuming less in terms of fossil fuel, plastics, meat, just by lowering our consumption, thinking about saving big tracks of habitat around the world, especially in the rain forest, to regulate the rainfall we get so that we don't end up starving out millions of people when the rains don't come in the right amount, at the right time. These are big issues, but the Photo Ark uses a very simple technique and that is eye contact and simple portraiture, to try to move people to want to learn and step up and act and vote appropriately, and really start thinking about how we can save ourselves. It's a lot bigger thing than just pictures, we're talking about the future of life on earth for people and animals.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

JS: People can follow us @joelsartore on Instagram or JoelSartore.com. I hope people go out and look and are inspired to take action in their own lives. There's lots everybody can do right at home to make the planet better.

National Geographic Photo Ark by Joel Sartore will be on view at Southampton Arts Center from Thursday, June 27 through Sunday, September 8. There will be a Public Opening Reception on Friday, June 28 from 6 to 8 p.m., followed by a free dance party with DJ Mister Lama from 8 to 11 p.m.

Southampton Arts Center is located at 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton. For more information, call 631-283-0967 or visit southamptonartscenter.org.


Nicole is the Editor-in-Chief of Hamptons.com where she focuses on lifestyle, nightlife, and mixology. She grew up in the Hamptons and currently resides in Water Mill. www.hamptons.com NicoleBarylski NicoleBarylski




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