On World Rhino Day, National Geographic announced two television specials documenting Joel Sartore’s work on the Photo Ark, premiering October 17th and 24th on Nat Geo Wild. In advance of the television event, I got the opportunity to interview Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photographer, Fellow and Founder of the Photo Ark about his amazing work, reaching a milestone 10,000 animals documented, and how he hasn’t let the pandemic slow down his important work.
Alex Reif:I'm a big fan of the Photo Ark. We've got the 2017 book in our house and I just really think it's incredible what you're doing. I was wondering if you could start with how you got into both photography and how your career with National Geographic started, since you were with them for quite a while before the Photo Ark was conceived.
Joel Sartore: And I'm still with them, just doing this now. I got started really from the desire to not have to get into math or chemistry in high school and college, which precluded me from being a biologist, which was what I wanted to do. I ended up going into journalism and that suited me well because I learned about writing, which has been very helpful, and learned how to be accurate, not exaggerate, spell people's names right, all that. I got into photography because of journalism, really… I got a job right out of college and went to the University Of Nebraska. And then I got a job with the Wichita Eagle in Kansas and did pretty well there and eventually met a photographer at National Geographic Magazine. A photographer named James Stanfield at a traveling photo seminar put on by the News Photographers Association in this country. And the people that are speakers, they are to not only speak, but they'll also look at portfolios. And I showed him my work and he asked what I wanted to do. And I told him I wanted to basically to do what he did. That led to him giving me a recommendation and a couple years later I was working for the magazine, as a freelancer always. But that's it, you own the rights to work that way.
Alex Reif: And Photo Ark, you recently hit a milestone back in May of 10,000 animals documented. You're now 500 past that. Obviously you've been doing this for 15 years now, but I'm curious to know that 500 since May, how challenging has that been given the global climate with coronavirus and travel restrictions and things like that. How much has that impacted your work?
Joel Sartore: I think it's actually been okay in terms of the Photo Ark because I can't really travel anywhere. It's allowed me to focus on animals here in the Great Plains. I live in Lincoln, Nebraska. And in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado, even Santa Fe, New Mexico, places I could drive to by myself and then work by myself.
I've been doing invertebrates, insects mainly, also freshwater mussels and freshwater fish and native rodents. And we'll probably get to a thousand species just since the pandemic started through the turn of the year. I never… I photographed insects in the past, but never intensely. And since without insects we couldn't survive, it's been a really good thing actually, in terms of injecting a lot of insects into the balance of things for the Photo Ark.
Alex Reif: The whole goal of the Photo Ark is to get people to fall in love with these animals and become inspired to save them. Obviously, everything that's happening in the world right now stems from, as Jane Goodall puts it, humankind's disrespect of nature. And I'm curious to know, have you felt your message and everything that you wanted to do with the Photo Ark is resonating differently now in the wake of everything that's happened with coronavirus?
Joel Sartore: I'm afraid that once the restrictions come off on travel, we'll just roll back to life and we'll be polluting and cutting down forests just as fast we can go again. I'm not under any illusion that this has made us any smarter, but I do want to stress that we have to save big blocks of habitat, intact habitat to regulate the climate, to regulate our rainfall so that we can sustain ourselves. We really do need to think of the rainforest as something more than lumber. They not only cool the planet along with ocean, but they really regulate the rainfall we get in areas where we know how to grow crops, to feed ourselves. I don't know if this really answers your question fully, but it's really imperative that people get smarter about this. They're taking nature, not for granted, but realizing that our very lives depend on nature in all sorts of ways.
Alex Reif: National Geographic has a worldwide reach, but a lot of those things that you talk about sometimes come down to local government agencies, getting people motivated to use their vote to make changes on that level. What do you feel is some of your biggest hurdles going forward or mankind's biggest hurdles in protecting these spaces so that we don't lose these animals that are imperative to our survival?
Joel Sartore: I think narcissism has a great deal to do with it. The driving force behind human motivation usually is the desire to feel important, to accumulate wealth to stand out. And that leads to environmental destruction, mainly extraction of resources. The main obstacle is that people, they're so involved in their own lives. They're involved in… they follow celebrities, they follow politics and sports, but beyond that they don't really assign a value to the natural world and that's at our own peril. That's the thing we really have to overcome. And I think that we can try to start doing that by being entertaining with these various species in the stories they have to tell. By not being really negative or pessimistic, but by being uplifting and celebrating people who have saved species just through hard work and dedication and because they cared. That's the type of thing that I'm really attracted to in terms of trying to spread the message of these stories, are people that are environmental heroes and just teach everybody that they can do it too. But the first step is awareness that there's a problem and that's where the Photo Art comes in. We teach people that there are problems that can be solved, but we need to start paying attention.
Alex Reif: You mentioned celebrities in there but you are, at least amongst National Geographic fans, a pretty visible figure. With the new two-part special that's coming on National Geographic, you had the cameras turned around on you a little bit, which has happened multiple times throughout your Photo Ark journey. What's it like having a documentary crew photographing you while you're trying to photograph these animals? Do you feel you were able to still get all your work done while sharing this important message with National Geographic's audience?
Joel Sartore: That's a good question. The Nat Geo Wild channel crew, they actually helped me get more work done because they asked me where I wanted to go or where I was planning on going and then they just took care of everything. They produced the shoot and paid for it and they were… It's the same crew I've worked with for years and years. We did a PBS series a few years ago now, the Nat Geo Wild series. It's been just a pleasure. I mean, it's so nice to not have to worry about all the logistical details, which I usually have to work out. In this case, National Geographic took care of that and I could just show up and concentrate on the work. It was delightful, actually. I hope they do more of them. It is very nice to be able to concentrate on just getting the shoot done and not have to worry about how we're going to get a ride back to the hotel and where we’re eating dinner and just visas and everything that goes with travel, especially foreign travel.
Alex Reif: What do you hope that viewers take away from getting to see behind the lens of the Photo Ark in these two specials?
Joel Sartore: I would hope that they come away with the fact that all these animals are intelligent. They really are survivors and they deserve a basic right to exist. And it's at our peril that we ignore them and we're on track to lose half of everything by mid-century or a little bit later than that perhaps, if we're lucky. It's folly to think that we'll be just fine if we doom everything else to extinction. I mean, it's not going to work like that, we have to have nature. I'm hoping that people get a little bit more of an environmental ethic watching this. And they feel for these animals that they realize that they should watch the products they buy. Is that dining room set made out of old growth woods from the tropics? They should watch the kind of vehicle they drive, drive it less, carpool, inflate their home, plant a garden, plant nectar bearing plants and milkweed for bees and butterflies in their yards… Convinced their local government not to spray poison all over every city park to kill weeds, just let everything grow and mow it. There's a million things people can do and hopefully they pick up that environmental ethic just by watching the show. At least I hope so.
Alex Reif: You've documented such a biodiversity of different types of animals and species. What has been the most difficult animal or species to document? And have you ever felt like your life was in danger trying to complete those projects?
Joel Sartore: When I was in the field with National Geographic, you get charged by various things that you try pressing and getting too close to. I don't know, grizzly bears and elephants, that kind of thing. But the thing is that you're usually asking for it, you're pushing and you're trying to get too close. Now that I'm doing Photo Ark, I don't really need to worry about that because these are animals that are born and raised in human care. The keepers and handlers know these animals really well. They incentivize the animals with food to get them to move into position if it's the larger animals. And there's no danger to it, really. It's not a very romantic or exotic story, but our goal is to just have things go as calmly as possible, as smoothly as possible. Just get through the day and go onto the next day. It's not as swashbuckling as being in the field, but I like it a lot better. I mean, it just closes at five o'clock, so it's fine.
Alex Reif: Your work also gets displayed in quite a few places. I recently bumped into it in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay Aquarium not even realizing that they had a Photo Ark component to their experience there. What's it like seeing so many zoos and aquariums and associations like that want to partner with this project? Not only be there for you to document their animals, but also to make their visitors aware of this? How have you seen the Photo Ark grow and expand over the years in terms of its reach?
Joel Sartore: That's a great question. One thing that's actually very nice is that we are getting more, the Photo Ark, we're getting more well-known and that's good for getting access to more zoos and aquariums. And it also, when families go to a zoo, they usually spend a lot of quality time there, a couple of hours, and you see people stop and read and learn about these animals. That's very satisfying because when they're at home, there's so many distractions constantly. If I can get people to concentrate for a little bit, just through these traveling exhibitions that National Geographic puts out there, that's wonderful. Very satisfying.
Alex Reif: National Geographic recently joined the Walt Disney family of companies. With that brand behind your work now, do you feel like there's any other opportunities to reach a bigger audience, possibly through things like Disney's Animal Kingdom or some of their conservation work they do around the world?
Joel Sartore: I hope so. Disney does have a Conservation Fund and they fund all sorts of projects all over the world and they certainly know how to tell a story. The whole world knows Disney and they're in their entertainment products. I'm very excited about that and hopeful that Disney can give the Photo Ark even more lift. Really, nature needs a long-term sustained ad campaign. You know, when a car company comes out with a new model or a fast food place comes up with a new sandwich or there's a new movie out, I mean, you hear about it over and over again. I really think nature needs the same thing for people just to be reminded of what's at stake. Because our survival is at stake, if we don't do something about climate change and habitat loss, we're all sunk. But we're so into politics, we're so into sports, celebrities. It's not me in a way, but I'm never a pessimist. I'm always optimistic that more people will fall in love with these animals just as I have and want to figure out what they can do to save them, or at least live a better life environmentally. I know that we're making progress and we just keep going.
Alex Reif: You got a screen legend like Harrison Ford to write the foreword to your Photo Ark book. Obviously he's a celebrity who is a very outdoorsy person and really is passionate about that, but you've mentioned it before and I noticed Vans has a National Geographic shoe collection and some of your Photo Ark animals ended up on a shoe. Are there any kinds of those collaborations that you're interested in pursuing to help get that message out there?
Joel Sartore: Yeah, absolutely. Just backing up a second. Harrison Ford has been a vice president of Conservation International for a long time. He's been on their board for many years, so he's a good fit. And it was kind of him to do the introduction and the foreword, but in terms of collaboration, yes, absolutely. The more the better because it helps by having these images on commercial products or seen in more editorial spaces or maybe on door boards, TV commercials. This is good for these species. I mean, most of these animals I've never heard of before and a lot of them have never had their picture taken before. And certainly the majority of them have never gotten international press. When we see a shoe line launched by Vans or a jewelry line or anything, I'm happy about that because that gets these species more of a profile. And that's what it's all about is letting people know these guys exist, what the threats are to their existence and what we can do to save them. So that's really the whole point is to get these things seen and what partnerships help elevate all these animals. They float the Ark, you could say.
Alex Reif: And speaking of that, sometimes I'll be watching National Geographic and they'll bring up an animal, and they'll say that it's estimated there's less than 50 left in the wild. An example of that recently was the Indus Dolphin through the Out of Eden walking tour, just how few of those are left in India. Are there any animals or species that are really high up on your list to document that you feel we’re at risk of losing before you even get to them?
Joel Sartore: Yeah. The Javan Rhino is one of those. It's an animal that lives just near Jakarta, fewer than 60 maybe in Toulon National Park. And that's one that's not in captivity. It would take a series of camera traps, run waterholes in the dry season using night as the black background. And there are some extremely rare birds… We're going to race to try to get them, but COVID definitely got us all chasing at the starting gate. And we come up with these plans all the time, but we'll be ready once the travel is safe again, we'll be ready to go. And we pretty much know where a lot of the rare species are that we need to find, and we will just go after them. That's the plan. We were all set when everything shut down in March and we'll just pick up where we left off.
Alex Reif: With a lot of parents becoming educators and turning to National Geographic and Nat Geo Wild and Nat Geo Kids to help fill out their lesson plans, what things would you recommend to parents or families who get inspired by the Photo Ark and want to do something locally in their communities? What things would you recommend for them to pursue, either activities or things they can do in their own backyard?
Joel Sartore: I think that one thing is for people to just use this as a lesson plan, for people to start thinking about what can we do? I live in Lincoln, Nebraska. What can we do in terms of getting the word out or making the world a better place? That's the goal is to make the world a better place, right? I would think that you just start by learning what the species and habitats are in your neck of the woods. Are any rare? Are any habitats rare? What can you do to beef those up? A huge one, and I mean huge, that most people don't think about is the fact that most of our roadways or rural highways are mowed at inopportune times. And they’re also sprayed with chemicals to kill insects and weeds. That's really hard on the environment. Your lawn, the domestic lawn, you think about the tons and tons and tons of pesticides and herbicides that go on the lands to kill insects and end up in our water supply where other animals encounter them, including humans, we drink it. Just getting people to stop and think about stopping the poisoning of landscapes wholesale would be a giant deal. That's one reason why I'm excited in insects, bees and butterflies, they have to have a chemical-free environment. If people will plant a pollinator garden with milkweed for Monarch Butterflies in my backyard, or at work or encourage their local city planners or city parks department to start doing the same, we can make some real headway and we can save the Monarch Butterfly. We can save so many things, but it starts with awareness. Learning about what the problems are and what can be done. And we're talking about that right now. This is a very good sign.
Alex Reif: Perfect. Well, thank you so much, I really appreciate your time. I look forward to seeing the specials and continuing to follow all the great work you're doing.
Joel Sartore: Thank you.
You can catch the two-part Photo Ark special television event on October 17th and 24th only on Nat Geo Wild.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.