NANPA 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award: Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore receives NANPA's Lifetime Achievement Award from NANPA President Gordon Illg at the 2019 Nature Photography Summit. Photo by Frank Gallagher.

Joel Sartore receives NANPA’s Lifetime Achievement Award from NANPA President Gordon Illg at the 2019 Nature Photography Summit. Photo by Frank Gallagher.

If you attended NANPA’s 2019 Nature Photography Summit and Trade Show in Las Vegas, you had the pleasure of seeing Joel Sartore receive NANPA’s Lifetime Achievement Award and deliver an informative, amusing, inspiring presentation about his life, family and his long-term project, the National Geographic Photo Ark.  The Photo Ark seeks to document more than 12,000 species of mammals, insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.  With more than half of all species on the path towards extinction during this century, the project could not be timelier.  After the Summit, we had a chance to ask Sartore a few questions.

NANPA Blog:  You are best known for your Photo Ark project, an effort to bring attention to and save endangered species and habitat.  You’ve said that the genesis of this project came from your wife’s battle with breast cancer which gave you a much more personal perspective on the “shortness and fragility of life.”  What was the spark that led from her battle for survival to the survival of species and habitat?

Sartore:  My wife had breast cancer 14 years ago and I stayed home for a year to take care of her and our three kids. During that time, I had many chances to reflect on my life and what to do if we made it through. Once Kathy recovered (we consider that she’s beaten it fully since it’s been so long ago since diagnosis), I decided to focus on one big project, something to reach a public with a decreasing attention span, and really try to move the needle of conservation.

NANPA Blog:  In the Photo Ark, each species is shown with a plain background, either black or white.  That’s unusual in nature photography where photographers typically show an animal in its environment.  What was the inspiration for making plain backgrounds a signature element of Photo Ark images?

Sartore:  I use studio lighting and black and white backgrounds to level the playing field for all species featured in the National Geographic Photo Ark—a mouse is every bit as large and important as an elephant. The solid backgrounds also eliminate distractions, allowing viewers to look deeply into the eyes of these animals and see their true beauty, intelligence and worthiness, and connect most directly with them. I hope this connection will inspire people to take action and protect these animals before it’s too late.

NANPA Blog:  What is the most difficult aspect of photographing species for the Photo Ark?

Sartore:  Sadly, I have seen species go extinct since starting the National Geographic Photo Ark. A rabbit, a fish and the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog have all gone extinct since I photographed them. Plus, there are others that are down to just one or two individuals left.  It saddens me greatly, but also angers and inspires me to want to give everything I’ve got to this project, and use extinction as a wakeup call.  As these species go away, so could we. 

NANPA Blog:  What has been the one you’re most proud of photographing?

Sartore:  Most animals I photograph have a real impact on me. They’re all like children to me because I’m the only voice most will ever have.

For most proud of, I suppose it would be the chance to get to know Nabire, one of the last northern white rhinos, at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. She was the sweetest, and passed away less than two weeks after our visit, of complications brought on by old age. Now the world just has two left, a mother and daughter in a single pen in Kenya.

Joel Sartore speaks about the Photo Ark and conservation photography at NANPA's 2019 Nature Photography Summit. Photo by Frank Gallagher.

Joel Sartore speaks about the Photo Ark and conservation photography at NANPA’s 2019 Nature Photography Summit. Photo by Frank Gallagher.

NANPA Blog:  Is there a funny or surprising story about one of the shoots?

Sartore:  That’s easy. It was chimps completely destroying a set at the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, KS. The shoot lasted less than three seconds. People can see it on my website, www.joelsartore.com. Just search for, ‘The Chimp Incident’.

NANPA Blog:  On your Instagram you said you’d be giving us “tips and tricks on how you can save species without having to leave home.”  Can you give some examples? Beyond the obvious, what’s something unique that a nature photographer might do?

Sartore:  I think a great way to get people to connect and care with images is through eye contact. In my images for the Photo Ark, I hope viewers will look deeply into the eyes of these animals and see they are important and worthy of preserving. By connecting directly with each and every animal, I hope we’ll inspire people to take action and protect these animals before it’s too late. We want people to consider their lifestyles and how they spend their money.  Are they helping or hurting the environment with their purchases, from the size car they drive to the kind of wood that’s used in the furniture they buy?  Where did all these products come from, and what environmental toll did each take? Do people insulate their homes well, and use energy-efficient appliances? Will they eat less meat, which is very energy and water consuming to produce? We also encourage people to stop putting chemicals of any kind on their lawn since it all ends up eventually in our rivers and streams and oceans.  There are many more ways to help save the planet right from home, as well.  There are lots of ways you can help at NatGeoPhotoArk.org.

NANPA Blog:  Working with National Geographic is a dream job for many nature photographers.  Your images reach a worldwide audience, have the prestige and respect of National Geographic behind them and can educate and inspire millions.  What benefits (and/or challenges) do you get from your association with National Geographic that most people don’t know about?

Sartore:  Some of the more obvious ways the Photo Ark has impact is in raising money to save species from extinction, but in the bigger picture we raise public awareness to the extinction crisis.

From projections on buildings like St. Peter’s Basilica and the Empire State Building, to publication in National Geographic magazine and on their social media, we reach more than 100 million people per post now. The National Geographic Photo Ark images get people to care about some of the least known animals on the planet, while there’s still time to save them.

One of the ways we’re doing this is through our newly launched Nat Geo Photo Ark EDGE Fellowship, a new conservation initiative aimed at supporting future conservation leaders working on the planet’s most unique and endangered species.  In partnership with the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE of Existence program, which focuses on the planet’s most unique and endangered species, the new fellowship will support funding and highlight creatures in the National Geographic Photo Ark that have historically received little to no conservation attention.

NANPA Blog:  We ask each award winner to make a prediction about the state of nature photography in the coming one to five years.  What do you think we’ll be seeing in the near future?

Sartore:  Still and video cameras will continue to improve, as will the technologies to do remote imaging like camera traps. Grant funding will become even more important as a way to pay for all of this. One thing’s for sure; the world will continue to need great conservation stories told well. That’s where NANPA members can really shine.