Four Sumatran tiger cubs, Panthera tigris sumatrae, at the Tierpark Berlin. (Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)
California School of the Arts

Interview with Joel Sartore: Photographing every captive species of animal in the world for the ‘Photo Ark’

A multiyear journey. A project founded on love for photography and animals. Thousands of species and subspecies held in captive in zoos around the world. National Geographic photographer and Fellow Joel Sartore’s mission is to photograph every last one of them for the “Photo Ark.” His photographs have changed the world in the past, preventing a hydroelectric dam from submerging in Bolivia’s Madidi National park and inspired new legislation protecting Australia’s koala.

I had a chance to talk with him over the phone about the project and National Geographic WILD’s new two-part special documenting his journey around the world over the past year.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the Photo Ark and what inspired it? 

A: The Photo Ark started 16 to 17 years ago when my wife got breast cancer. I had to stay home for a change. We have three young kids at home and her disease was serious. She’s fine today, it’s been a long time since she had it, but during that year…on the days when she felt better, I would go to the local Zoo, the Lincoln Children’s Zoo only a mile from our house. I started taking pictures of some of the animals there on black and white backgrounds as something to do and then started getting better and better. I would drive to the Omaha zoo and did the same thing there…I ended up going from zoo to zoo and some aquariums. I started thinking, a lot of these zoos share animals for genetic diversity. I bet I could make a pretty good run of showing what biodiversity really looked like if I kept it up. It’s more than 10,000 species now and we photograph everything from ants to elephants, invertebrates, all the way up to charismatic megafauna. 

White tailed hawk, Geranoaetus albicaudatus, at the National Aviary of Colombia. (Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Q: What were you thinking when you realized that you were going to work on a project that may take decades to finish? 

A: It’s a bit like climbing a mountain. I don’t think you want to look straight up. You just want to look at your feet, take one step at a time. It took several years for me to realize that this was an achievable goal. Now, we’re starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s not something I ever worried about. I just figured it would take a lot of work and that’s exactly what it takes. During non-pandemic times, I’m gone 65% of the year. Probably gone to every continent just about, all but Antarctica for the project.

Four Sumatran tiger cubs, Panthera tigris sumatrae, at the Tierpark Berlin. (Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Q: How has Covid and this pandemic affected your work on the project? 

A: It’s given me a chance to focus on things to photograph here in my home state of Nebraska. That’s been mainly invertebrate insects, like moths, beetles, flies, even bees [and] arachnids, all sorts of spiders. And I think we’re going to get to 800 insects from this summer. We’re still identifying all the animals I got. We ran lights at night out at different farms, acreages and lakeside wetlands in six states that we could drive to and my kids helped with that. So that’s been a great thing because without insects, people couldn’t survive either. This has been really good for the Photo Ark overall.

Q: What is one of the most surprising things you’ve learned while creating this project? 

A: What immediately comes to mind is the fact that these animals are all very very intelligent. They’re arguably more intelligent than any device man has made yet, in terms of being able to live in a hostile world, survive, thrive and breed…especially the birds and the mammals, they know that we’re working without harming them, so they get used to it really quickly. There’s great beauty and exquisite design carved by hundreds of thousands or millions of years of evolution, but there’s also a real sense that they’re just as smart as I am.

Tiger nudibranch, Armina tigrina, at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab. (Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Q: What are things people can do to help the environment and endangered species?

A: They need to vote for candidates that care about being green. We’ve got to get off fossil fuels. The quicker the better. You see how California’s right now just up in flames, in constant stages of drought, but other places will get colder and flood more. We have to have a stable climate to grow crops. We cannot destroy the entire surface of the Earth to make it one big farm and think that that we’ll get away with it. We won’t. If you’ve just got a window box, you can put the flowers in it and help pollinating insects, which are really vital to our survival. There’s a thousand things people could do but really it starts with how you spend your money.

Q: With around 5000 species left to photograph, how long do you estimate the rest of the project will take? 

A: We have to go a lot farther to get fewer so likely, it will take another 10 years because we have got some pretty far flung places to get just a handful of say endemic species that only live on a certain Island. I’m feeling pretty good about it…we’re getting there.

An endangered cotton-top tamarin, Saguinus oedipus, at the Miller Park Zoo. (Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Q: Your job can be brutal and exhausting at times. How do you keep yourself motivated in the moment? 

A: That’s a great question. While we celebrate all biodiversity, [the Photo Ark] is not really made just to herald the animals we all know about…it’s to show people animals that they didn’t know existed. We’re not going to save anything if we’ve never even met them. Animals that live high up in the trees, camouflaged to look like grass, live in muddy water or in the soil, small animals, tiny animals, the ones that really drive ecosystems and help sustain life on Earth — that’s what the Photo Ark’s really built for. That’s a pretty big motivator for me. 

Q: What advice would you give to high schoolers who want to become storytellers or photographers like you? 

A: I would say to specialize, to make sure that they become an expert in something. It could be anything. Whatever people are passionate about, they tend to stick with. Rather than being…somebody who’s interested in everything, become the expert that people come to for advice. There’s real value there…so take something you love and stick with it. And try to make the world better for you having been in it. Don’t think that it’s about making money. You’ll make money if you’re great at something and persistent. Just think about what you would love to do. That’s a life well-spent in my opinion.

Nat Geo’s WILD two-part special “Photo Ark” premieres on Oct. 17 and 24 at 7 p.m. PST.