U.S. photographer hopes to save animals by taking pictures of them

Like the ancient Noah preparing for a flood, American Joel Sartore is collecting animals to save them, but instead of placing them in an ark, he’s taking their pictures. The goal of his Photo Ark project, which is supported by the National Geographic Society, is to photograph some 12,000 animals that are vanishing because of hunting, habitat loss and climate change.

From the project’s beginnings at Sartore’s local zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska, the freelance photographer has now traveled to more than 40 countries for Photo Ark. Eleven years later, he has passed the halfway point in capturing images of his subjects.

Sartore hopes his photos will encourage people to take steps to save the animals, half of which, he predicts, could become extinct at the turn of the next century. “There’s still time to save the majority of species on the planet, but we must care, and act now,” he says. “As other species go extinct, so could we.”

A baby chimp on a white background (© Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)
A 3-month-old baby chimpanzee (© Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Sartore’s riveting photos show animals who appear to be staring at you and resemble humans posed in a photography studio against a stark white or black background.

Two fennec foxes on a black background (© Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)
Fennec foxes at the Saint Louis Zoo. The smallest foxes in the world have enormous ears to cool them down as they traverse sand dunes in the Sahara, where they are common. Their cuteness makes them attractive to the wild-pet trade. (© Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

“Most of these Photo Ark shoots last just a few minutes,” he says, “during which time I hope the animal glances back at me and makes eye contact. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, that’s exactly the connection I’m hoping to make.”

A porcupine on a white background (© Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)
A Brazilian porcupine at the Saint Louis Zoo (© Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Sartore recalls it was a book about birds he got as a teenager that started him thinking about the animals in danger of disappearing. Martha was “the very last passenger pigeon, in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio,” he said. “She died in 1914, and the species went from billions to none. I couldn’t get over that. Still can’t.”

A weeper capuchin on a black background (© Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)
A weeper capuchin at the Summit Municipal Park in Gamboa, Panama (© Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Some animals are easier to photograph than others. “Favorites are tortoises because they don’t move much and so they’re easy to focus on.” he said. “Much less fun are mustelids [weasels, mink, ferrets, etc.] because they NEVER stop moving. … They especially like to nose the front of my lens, which makes them even blurrier. They’re having fun, but I’m not.”

Sartore, who is 54, hopes he will be able to finish his project. If not, he has a backup plan. His eldest son, now 22, who helps him out on some shoots, has promised to continue his mission. “I hope the public will finally stop and pay attention to the fact that we’re all in this together,” he said.