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One man’s mission to capture 12,000 endangered species

Joel Sartore is on a monumental quest to photograph the world’s endangered species. His goal is to reach 12,000—and he’s almost halfway there.


 
Oblong-winged katydids (Amblycorypha oblongifolia) at the Insectarium in New Orleans. These color variants are found in nature, though anything but green is usually eaten by predators immediately. The Insectarium has been a leader in breeding these color variants for display in the zoo community. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

Oblong-winged katydids (Amblycorypha oblongifolia) at the Insectarium in New Orleans. These color variants are found in nature, though anything but green is usually eaten by predators immediately. The Insectarium has been a leader in breeding these color variants for display in the zoo community. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

As a long-time photographer for National Geographic, Joel Sartore had gotten used to the life of a nomad, roaming from one continent to the next in pursuit of the perfect shot.

But when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, he was, for the first time in his career, forced to stay in one place. Caring for her and their two kids in Lincoln, Neb., he occasionally found time to visit the local children’s zoo and photograph its animals against black and white backgrounds.

His editor liked the minimalistic style and—after Sartore’s wife recovered to full health—assigned him to shoot a story on endangered species with the same aesthetic.

Ten years later, that hobby-cum-essay has become Photo Ark, a monumental long-term mission to photograph the world’s endangered species.

By this fall, Sartore will have captured 5,000 different animals, insects and sea creatures. His goal is to shoot 12,000—and to get viewers to care about conservation in the process.

“Without other species on this planet, people will die,” he says. “We ignore them at our own peril in the long run.”

Sartore photographs most of the animals in zoos and aquariums, and the shoots last mere minutes. Smaller species are moved into tents—“they can’t see me, because it’s just the front of the lens sticking in”—while larger animals are captured in their own living spaces against a portable backdrop or painted wall. “The black and white backgrounds are a great equalizer,” Sartore explains. “They give equal weight and importance to every animal, no matter whether it’s a tiger or a tiger beetle.”

A veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus) at the Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

A veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus) at the Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

Endangered African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) at the Omaha Zoo. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

Endangered African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) at the Omaha Zoo. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

A Calabar python (Calabaria reinhardtii) at the Columbus Zoo. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

A Calabar python (Calabaria reinhardtii) at the Columbus Zoo. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

A nine-week-old clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) at the Columbus Zoo. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

A nine-week-old clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) at the Columbus Zoo. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

An endangered Indian rhinoceros female with calf (Rhinoceros unicornis) at the Fort Worth Zoo. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

An endangered Indian rhinoceros female with calf (Rhinoceros unicornis) at the Fort Worth Zoo. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

A western harris' hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus superior) named Hudson at The Living Desert. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

A western harris’ hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus superior) named Hudson at The Living Desert. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

Gladys, a six-week-old western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) at the Cincinnati Zoo. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)

Gladys, a six-week-old western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) at the Cincinnati Zoo. (Joel Sartore/www.joelsartore.com)


 

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