By Emily Harris
Joel Sartore’s favorite assignment of his entire career was photographing the ivory-billed woodpecker. The “National Geographic” photographer has spent decades pursuing the perfect snapshot, primarily for wildlife conservation pieces. Sartore’s visit to campus was sponsored by the McLain Program for Environmental Studies, the Sandbox initiative, and the Shared Earth Foundation. “I thought the work that he did and the project that he picked would be inspiring to students,” said Dr. Karl Kehm, the Joseph McLain associate professor of physics and environmental studies.
On Sept. 19, students, faculty, and Chestertown residents filled Decker Theater to listen to Sartore share his experiences working for the magazine. The renowned author and photojournalist also shared photographs from his personal project, the Photo Ark.
“What I want you to do tonight is kind of keep an open mind as we go through this,” Sartore said to the audience. “Keep an open mind. Anything is possible.”
Traveling around the world for various assignments is one perk of being a freelance photographer for “National Geographic,” and it often places Sartore on the front lines of environmental degradation. He shared pictures from a trip to Northern Australia where koalas are endangered as a result of development and domestic dogs.
A nursing staff saved the corpses of koalas that fell prey to domestic dogs so that Sartore could photograph them when he arrived in Australia. “It’s a very sad thing. So I shoot this picture…and then this picture runs around the world…the government of Australia catches some heat…I can’t say that this picture caused some federal protection there but they did list it [the koala] as imperiled not long after that,” said Sartore. The opportunity to make a difference is something that Sartore always looks for in an assignment. “Every story I take I try to think about moving the needle, can it change public perception,” he said.
“There are common sense solutions to a lot of these problems. If you listen to the far left and far right you think that we’re miles apart,” said Sartore. “We’re bombarded with other people telling us how to think, all the time.”
The journalist is frequently asked about near-death experiences while on assignment, and he has had quite a few.
Even in those moments when Sartore fears for his life, conservation is always in the back of his mind. When the pack of wolves surrounded him Sartore said, “If one of these wolves bites me, it will set wolf recovery back a long time.” The inclination to protect motivates him to do a job which often keeps him away from home for weeks at a time.
Beyond the North American continent, Sartore has also traveled to East Africa to photograph lions in Uganda. He witnessed cattlemen driving their herds into national parks outside of their farm plots, and calves were often killed by lions. To prevent the lions from returning to the carcass, Sartore said they use a “tasteless, odorless chemical, poison, that when the lions come back to feed that night or a hyena, everything dies. Even the flies that eat the carcasses of the dead lions die.”
This is one more example of detrimental human behavior that Sartore has captured in his work. He said the solution is making the lions a tourist attraction so that they are worth more alive than dead. “Lions, hyenas, leopards — we’re going to lose the big carnivores over in Africa, or at least in Uganda where I’ve been…unless we figure out a way to get people over there as tourists.”
Tourism ties into another topic that Sartore tackled in his discussion: keeping animals captive in zoos. While many individuals are critical of keeping endangered species in captivity, Sartore views it as a necessity. “Zoos now are arks,” he said. “They’re a real link in educating the public…It’s great to see things in person.”
The ark concept relates to a personal project that Sartore developed while spending time at home with his family. Sartore was inspired by John James Audubon’s documentation of bird species that have since gone extinct, as well as artists that captured Native American culture. He wanted to create something that would have a lasting impact similar to these works.
Thus, the Photo Ark was born. “The goal is to get every animal on Earth that’s in captivity into this ark, because we’re going to lose half of all species by 2100. Half of every species of bird you’ve ever seen, every frog you’ve ever seen,” said Sartore. “At worst case this becomes a repository of what we threw away, and we’re throwing away the pieces fast.”
“The world has about 10 to 12,000 species captive. So far we have 4,000 species after eight or nine years. I think another 20 years if I live that long will do it,” Sartore said of completing the Photo Ark project.
Sartore hopes to grab people’s attention with the Photo Ark the same way he captures their attention when taking photos for an assignment. The difficulty lies in getting people to care about obscure species that are not the typical stars of conservation campaigns.
The photos are posted on Sartore’s website, and he often allows zoos to use them for free. Many of the subjects in his photos have gone extinct since they were photographed for the Photo Ark. Despite the rapid rate at which species on Earth are disappearing, they are memorialized in Sartore’s work.
Sartore uses black and white backgrounds in these photos that allow him to “look these animals in the eye and get up close…It gets us to realize that there’s as much beauty and intricacy and things worth saving in a little bitty lemur or a turtle as a black bear. They’re all the same.”