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Hamptons Life

Jun 28, 2019 12:01 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Joel Sartore's Photo Ark Project Is A Race Against Extinction

The National Geographic Photo Ark exhibition installed at the Southampton Arts Center. ANNETTE HINKLE
Jun 28, 2019 12:27 PM

Fifteen thousand.

That’s how many of the world’s animal species National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore is in the process of documenting through the Photo Ark, a project that in the last 15 years has taken him to 40 countries and 250 zoos and animal sanctuaries around the world, where he’s photographed everything from the tiniest fly to the largest hippo.

Mr. Sartore’s 25-year mission is to document every species in human care, and none is too small to document. All animals receive equal treatment in front of his lens, and are all presented in their best light.

“I’m doing handsome portraits of animals from ants to elephants,” Mr. Sartore explained in a recent phone interview from his home in Lincoln, Nebraska. “It’s a historical project to get the public to care about the extinction process today—a historical archive of animals alive today. I do minnows and sparrows and salamanders. Then I do tigers, rhinos and elephants.

“My work goes on. The quiet steady, drumbeat of it goes on.”

If that drumbeat was a clock, it would be a marker in the race against time. By the end of this century, it’s estimated that half of all species alive on Earth today may be extinct—a startling statistic no matter how you look at it.

Already, some of Mr. Sartore’s subjects have been lost to extinction since their closeup.

Among them: a Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog named Toughie, which left this earth on September 26, 2016, not long after he was photographed at Atlanta Botanical Garden. A native of Panama, he was the last known example of his species, which was last seen in the wild in 2007 and whose numbers were decimated by a fungus.

Similarly, Nabire, a female Northern white rhinoceros at a zoo in the Czech Republic, died on Monday, July 27, 2015—just one week after Mr. Sartore photographed her. The last remaining male died in 2018, and only two females remain alive on earth today, making the species functionally extinct.

When asked if many of the species he has photographed have since gone extinct, he said, “A handful have. But instead of getting depressed, I get mad and keep going.”

The photographs of Toughie and Nabire are both on view now, along with 91 other animal portraits taken by Mr. Sartore for the National Geographic Photo Ark Exhibition, at the Southampton Arts Center (SAC) through September 8. Presented in conjunction with the International Center of Photography (ICP), the exhibition opened June 27, and it comes to SAC from the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, where it was on view last fall.

Amy Kirwin, SAC’s artistic director, explained that last summer Mr. Sartore came to SAC to speak about his work as part of a series of ICP talks, and the decision was made to bring the Photo Ark here. This is the first time SAC has dedicated its entire summer season to a single exhibition, and included in this version of the show is an area dedicated to Mr. Sartore’s photographs of New York State species, such as the piping plover and the red knot.

No matter the location, Mr. Sartore photographs all the animals for the Photo Ark on either a black or white background to highlight their unique characteristics. While traveling the world taking portraits of animals may sound like a dream job to many, photographing often unpredictable and sometimes bad-tempered subjects in uncomfortable temperatures can be taxing.

“It’s never fun. It’s always work, and I want to get it done as fast as possible to not stress the animal,” Mr. Sartore explained. “I’ll say to the zoos, ‘What animals do you have? We need these 20.’ They’ll say, ‘You can do 15 of those.’

“For an impala or deer or bison, the zoo will prepare a space in black or white and get the animal eating there so they’re comfortable. Smaller animals are shifted into a pet kennel,” he added. “For a mouse or a parrot, they can move them in and out of tents fairly quickly.”

While zoos sometimes get a bad rap from people who oppose the idea of wild animals kept in captivity, Mr. Sartore notes that zoos and aquariums are vital resources—repositories of what has, in some cases, already been lost in the wild.

“It’s true, zoos have a lot of species that are gone in the wild,” he said. “If it weren’t for zoos, many of these animals would not be seen. Zoos are important for educating people about what’s going on in the wild, and what’s failing, and what we can do to turn things around.”

He adds that in many cases, zoo breeding programs are the only thing standing between the most endangered species and total extinction.

“Zoos are the thumb in the dike to losing half of all species and keeping the world as similar as we can to what we’ve known in the past,” he said. “The rough estimate is that half of all species could be gone by 2100, and it could be even worse when we start including invertebrates, which we don’t even know about.” He added, “It’s folly to think humans will be just fine.”

With a degree in journalism, Mr. Sartore’s career with National Geographic took him around the globe for several years as he pursued general interest stories. But, 15 years ago, his wife, Kathy, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and his career went on hold so he could be at home to care for her and their three children, Cole, Ellen and Jack.

It was during that time that he began formulating the idea of the Photo Ark. It was a project he felt could make a difference by calling attention to the impending fate of many of the planet’s species—and one that could begin right in his own backyard.

“Initially, it was something I could concentrate on and make a difference,” said Mr. Sartore. “The idea of shooting animal portraits took hold, and, during that time, I was thinking of ways we could do it so it would last longer than a single magazine story.

“I started photographing at the Lincoln Zoo, then the Omaha Zoo. I made quite a few trips to Houston,” added Mr. Sartore. “A lot of zoos share breeding stock and genetic traits to keep blood lines good, so I was able to get to them.”

Now, 15 years after starting the Photo Ark project, Mr. Sartore’s wife has beaten cancer, and he and his team have photographed pretty much all the animal species currently housed in most U.S. zoos. Which means the project is now taking him much farther afield.

“Critically endangered animals have our full attention, and we get to them as best we can,” he said. “Now, we’re focused on Western European zoos, and Asia, including Japan and Indonesia. We’re working through it and figure we’ll have photographed 10,000 species by the turn of this year.”

But he estimates it will take another 10 to 15 years to get the remaining 5,000 species found in zoos and aquariums.

“The last 5,000 will take longest, because we have to go farther. We keep going,” said Mr. Sartore who takes targeted trips so he can photograph specific animals. “In terms of how we determine them, a lot of islands have endemic species found nowhere else, especially in the South Pacific. We work with groups that are rehabbing native animals, and the goal is to show what biodiversity looked like at this point in time.”

He explained that the portraits on view at SAC were created over the last few years, and, in terms of calling attention to the plight of the species, he credits National Geographic with not only heavily funding the project but getting the word out as well.

“Geographic has 111 million followers on Instagram, and a third Photo Ark book is coming out, and that will also be the cover of the magazine,” said Mr. Sartore. “Geographic brings the project to life with their media reach. I have a team of seven here in Nebraska—we shoot it, make it look good and send it off to Nat Geo.”

When asked what parts of the world are most prone to species loss, Mr. Sartore said, “A lot of Asia, where they’ve cut down tropical rainforests to grow palm oil. Equatorial rainforests are drivers of precipitation around the world, and loss of the Amazon messes with our ability to grow food when we get too much or not enough rain.

“It’s a global challenge—it will be up to us whether we want to face it or stare into our smartphones,” he said. “That’s the key issue. Will we pay attention?”

When asked what advice he has for people who want to help make a difference, he encourages involvement at the most local levels.

“Good environmental work starts at home. Become a member of a local zoo or aquarium and look at your actions every day in terms of impact on the planet,” he said. “Don’t put any chemicals on your lawn, plant a pollinator garden to encourage bees and butterflies to survive, and eat less meat. Quit buying single-use plastics, drive a smaller car and insulate your home.

“We must empower the consumer,” he added. “The power to change the world is in your purse or wallet. We don’t really have time to lose. Celebrities, sports, politics, the price at the pumps—none of that is going to matter in terms of keeping us alive. The issues are still there, and people can deny them all they want. Either we come to grips with it as a society around the globe, or not.

“My job is to create beautiful portraits of animals looking their best, and hope that people will want to reach out to protect species.”

The National Geographic Photo Ark Exhibition runs through September 8 at Southampton Arts Center, 25 Jobs Lane. For more information, visit southamptonartscenter.org.

Upcoming events in conjunction with National Geographic Photo Ark:

ICP Photographers Series featuring internationally renowned wildlife, conservation and climate photographers on Thursdays at 7 p.m.

July 11: National Geographic Photographer Ami Vitale

July 18: New York Times Photographer Josh Haner

July 25: National Geographic Photographer Stephen Wilkes

$15 ($12 SAC and ICP members)

Photo Ark Gallery Tours with Wildlife Experts:

Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. Free.

July 6: Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program

July 27: Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Foundation – with Animal Ambassadors

August 10: Dr. Scarlett Magda

August 31: Quogue Wildlife Refuge – with Animal Ambassadors


Create and photograph mini animals with Sculpey clay, led by Ruby Jackson

Sundays, July 14 and August 11 from 2 to 5 p.m. All ages. $10.

Birding and photography with South Fork Natural History Museum

Sunday, July 28: Birding with Frank Quevedo for teens and adults at the Long Pond Greenbelt Nature Center, 2 p.m. free.

Saturday, August 10: Birding with Frank Quevedo at Shinnecock Bay plus Wildlife Photography Instruction by Ken Grille, 10 a.m. Adults and children ages eight and up. $20 (children $15).

Wildlife Sketching Workshop in the SAC Galleries with Scott Bluedorn

Sunday, July 28: 11:30 a.m. for ages 6 to 15

Sunday, August 4: 11:30 a.m. for adults ages 16 and up.

$20 ($15 for Friends of SAC)

Photography Workshops with ICP Faculty Members:

Finding Your Personal Voice Through Photography by ICP Faculty Bastienne Schmidt

Saturday, August 3: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Portfolio Review

Sunday, August 4: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Photo shoot in Southampton Village

$125 for 2-Day Intensive ($100 for SAC and ICP Members)

Photographing Beachscapes and Light by ICP Faculty Lynn Saville

Saturday, August 17: 4 to 6 p.m. $50 ($45 for SAC and ICP Members)

Wildlife Portraits with Quogue Wildlife Refuge Animal Ambassadors by ICP faculty Andy French

Monday, August 26: 2 to 4 p.m. $50 ($45 for SAC and ICP Members)

Workshops are for all levels. Bring your own camera.


Screening of documentary “Artifishal: The Road to Extinction is Paved with Good Intentions.” Sunday, August 4, at 6 p.m. $12 ($10 for Friends of SAC).

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