Joel Sartore Interview: Nat Geo WILD’s Photo Ark

While promoting the Nat Geo WILD series, Jorl Sartore spoke to Screen Rant about his ongoing endeavor and how The Photo Ark has truly “moved the needle for conservation.” He laments the extinct species he’ll never be able to photograph, but takes solace in the fact The Photo Ark has encouraged governments and NGOs to boost conservation efforts and put a greater focus on protecting nature and all the beauty in this world. He also reflects on some of the battle wounds he’s sustained during his years in the field, though its important to note that wild animal attacks are far less of a threat than diseases carried by mosquitoes and other bugs.

The Photo Ark can be found on Nat Geo television networks and streaming.

The Photo Ark has been a passion of yours for a few years now, and you’ve already photographed several species that have gone extinct. I think that’s proof that this is a vital project, since there are so many species that go extinct and it’s almost like we have no cultural memory of them, which is awful. Are there any species that don’t exist anymore that you wish you could have photographed before they died out?

Yes, absolutely. Going way back, it would be the quagga, the thylacene, the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, the great auk, the heath hen…the list goes on and on, unfortunately.

You recently photographed the Double-Wattled Cassowary and the Indonesian Spitting Cobra, two particularly dangerous animals. You took extra safety precautions with these critters. What were these precautions, and did they impact your process and relationships with these animals?

Well for the spitting cobra, I wore gloves and a plastic mask. The cobra’s venom is actually poisonous so I made sure to follow the instructions of the keepers to make sure both me and the cobra remained safe and comfortable during the photo shoot. The cassowary has these long talons that can swipe you fairly quickly, so I always be sure to follow the keeper’s lead as to where to stand and how to behave, especially with such a huge bird. With every animal I photograph for the Photo Ark, there are always precautions we take. Before every shoot I speak with the zookeepers and animal handlers on site and they are present during the photo shoot as well.

Kind of related to that, do you have any battle wounds? Have you ever gotten a little too close and wound up taking a hit from a subject you were trying to photograph? If so, did you get the shot?

I’ve been bit a few times by animals during Photo Ark shoot, but nothing serious. When doing field work for National Geographic Magazine prior to the Photo Ark project many years ago, I’d got charged by musk ox and grizzly bears, but I didn’t get a scratch. In reality, very few people are killed or wounded by wild animals. Most times, wolves and anacondas aren’t the biggest sources of concern while on assignment. Instead, it’s insect-borne disease we worry about.  In many parts of the world we face malaria, yellow fever, typhoid and myriad other diseases. While on assignment in Madidi National Park in Bolivia, I was bitten on the leg by a sandfly that was carrying leishmaniasis, a microscopic flesh-eating parasite. It took a month-long chemo to knock that one out.

You’ve been photographing animals for a long time. When did you decide this was going to be your career, and after so many years, does the act of capturing nature still bring you joy?

I’ve always been interested in animals, since I was a little boy. My mother had a set of Time-Life picture books. One was called The Birds. In that book was a look at several birds that have gone extinct, including the passenger pigeon. The very last one, a bird named Martha, was shown alive in a photo taken just before her death in the Cincinnati Zoo back in 1914. I was astounded. I think of that bird often, and it’s one of the things that drives my desire to tell the stories of all species, great and small. I want to stop extinction right this minute.I believe the National Geographic Photo Ark is moving the needle to help preserve species and that brings me joy.

Are you scared of any animals? Some people have problems with spiders or cockroaches or sharks or whatever, so do you have any animals where you’re just like, “Nope!”

Well, I need to care about all of them in order to tell the story of life on Earth. And so I do.

You’ve said The Photo Ark is a 25 year project. What drives you through the duration of such a massive undertaking? How do you keep your excitement up in a project that requires so much travel logistics and studio setup?

I am proud of the fact that the Photo Ark has helped move the needle for conservation — and that keeps me going. Photo Ark coverage of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, for example, helped elevate government spending from $30,000 a year to document the bird’s demise, to $1.2 million to fund a captive breeding program  That breeding program is a success today, thanks to the hard work of the researchers and breeding centers such as White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, FL. I’m very proud of that.

There are 12,000 species that you endeavor to capture for The Photo Ark. Are there any in particular that you are looking forward to, either because you would like to see them or because you anticipate a challenge in capturing their portrait?

We’re actually aiming for approximately 15,000 species. I always say that I am looking forward to the next species I photograph.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered on your Photo Ark journey thus far?

Sometimes we’re rushing against the clock. There are a number of endangered species that I work fairly quickly to get photographed because there are so few of them left. Now that we’ve photographed well over 10,500 species for the Ark, I have to travel farther to get the remaining species.

Do you have a final message you’d like to send to the Screen Rant reader about the importance of nature and respecting the myriad creatures that inhabit the Earth?

Quite literally, our future depends on nature. We cannot continue to destroy one species and ecosystem after another and think it won’t matter to humanity. It’s quite the opposite; our air, water and food hang in the balance.