One Man's Quest To Capture America's Endangered Zoo Animals (With A Camera)

Jan 23, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 10:06 am

To spend a day in the life of National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, there are a few things you have to get used to. Really long drives, for one. Tigers charging at you. And, of course ... well ... messes.

"I'm the only studio portrait photographer I know whose subjects routinely poop and pee on the background right in front of me," he says from behind the lens.

It's a comical sight here behind the scenes at the National Aquarium in Baltimore: Sartore, two animal handlers and a ridiculous amount of gear are cramped into a tiny, 50-degree back room. All for a puffin. Sartore is doing all he can to coax the little guy into a handsome headshot. In my mind, this is fun, but for him, it's serious business.

This is what Sartore does in his down time, between Geographic shoots. His ambition: Photograph as many zoo species as possible. Of the 6,000 species he estimates are represented in zoos and aquariums, he's already captured nearly a third. For now, he's calling it The Biodiversity Project. (Though he'll be taking suggestions for a catchier name on Field Test, the Geographic blog where he's been chronicling the project.)

"The goal of this project is to get people to look these things in the eye before they go extinct," he says. "Not everything I shoot is rare, but a lot is.

"I just figure, for a lot of these species, these pictures are all that's going to remain," he explains with a sigh at the end of the shoot.

Sartore sounds fatalistic, and that's because he kind of is. Among photographers, he's known for his book, Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species. The simplicity of shooting rare animals against black-and-white backgrounds is meant to put mosquitos and tigers on an equal level. Because in Sartore's mind, all animals are created equal.

And in his mind, they're all in danger — not just those on the government's endangered species list. "All these animals are ambassadors," he says. "They serve to remind us of what we had or what we have, hopefully, and that it's amazing."

It's in the same vein as John James Audubon and his obessive documentation of birds: Sartore seems almost compulsive about this visual record of fauna. "I've got a personality that's perfect for this," he admits. "I'm type-A. Can never put anything off. Fairly obsessive. And love to collect things."

Obsessive. Also passionate. And really, really concerned. Of the 30-plus stories he's published in National Geographic, most have something to do with endangered species. And he's got well-rehearsed responses for the questions you might have. Like mine: But aren't zoos depressing?

"We have a very non-nature-based life," he counters. "That's why zoos and aquariums are so important. It's the only place now where the public can go and actually see something without it being on a screen."

The hardest part about his job, beyond getting people to care, is being on the road, he says. Sartore spends about half the year away from his wife and three kids in Nebraska — where he recently bought 1,200 acres attempting to save a rare bird. He estimates he's put about 100,000 miles on his car just for this project.

Photographing is only half the battle, it seems. He wants people to "look these species in the eye" — which, for now, can be found on his website.

After the shoot, Sartore heads to the National Geographic offices for a magazine edit. Then it's another 24-hour drive back to Nebraska. With a few photo-intensive pit stops along the way, of course. He just can't help himself.

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Joel Sartore has made a name for himself in the world of portrait photography. Though to get a feel for his subjects, you might try looking at National Geographic magazine.

NPR's Claire O'Neill spent a morning with the photographer to see how he works.

JOEL SARTORE: I'm the only studio portrait photographer I know whose subjects routinely poop and pee on the background right in front of me.

CLAIRE O'NEILL, BYLINE: And they can get away with it, because in case you haven't figured it out, Joel Sartore's subjects are animals.


O'NEILL: Bugs, tigers, birds, frogs - you name it, he'll shoot it.

Today, at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, it's a razorbill bird - that's the oinking you hear - and a puffin, little black-and-white guys with bright, orange beaks.

SARTORE: He's just standing there with his back of his head to me. I got to have an eye or something to show how pretty he is, even in winter plumage.


O'NEILL: We're cramped in this backroom refrigerator. There are two animal handlers, two birds, Sartore, his four-piece light kit, two cameras, power generators, backdrops. It's a total production.

When he's not on assignment for Geographic, Sartore is doing this: traveling to the country's zoos and aquariums.

SARTORE: The goal of this project is to get people to look these things in the eye before they go extinct. Not everything I shoot is rare, but a lot is.

O'NEILL: He estimates about 6,000 species are represented in zoos. And he's already shot about a third of them.

SARTORE: I supplement this by going out on these Geographic shoots around the world, and photograph the lions in the trees at sunset and the koala bears in Australia. But what I want to do is go to the world's zoos and aquariums and photograph all these species, while I can. I just figure, for a lot of these species, these pictures are all that's going to remain.

O'NEILL: And Sartore is serious about this. He once drove clear across the country to photograph a fly. Also on today's agenda is a turtle. He's really into turtles.

SARTORE: This is our spot. It's a...


SARTORE: ...stainless steel countertop. We're going to get some clamps out. We're going to get ready for a big turtle shoot, big turtle rodeo.


SARTORE: A couple of clamps to go right there.

O'NEILL: Sartore is talkative, friendly, Midwestern. His red T-shirt says Nebraska in big white letters. That's where he lives with his wife and three kids when he's not on the road, where he just bought 1,200 acres just to save a rare bird.

He's known among photographers for his book "Rare," studio portraits of endangered species. He photographs on plain backgrounds. But as far as he's concerned, everything is in some kind of danger, and he wants to capture it all.

SARTORE: We have a very non-nature-based life. That why zoos and aquariums are so important. It's the only place now where the public can go and actually see something without it being on a screen. It's real. These things are real.

O'NEILL: And the end of the day, we're sitting in his Prius. It's his studiomobile, packed to the gills with equipment. Today, he got the two birds, the turtle, an iguana, an Australian prickly stick that hopped on his lens. Four hours, five animals - not bad. But that's only half the battle. Sartore wants people to see them.

SARTORE: Look these animals in the eye and tell me you don't care about them. They're amazing and they're funny and they're sad and they're lazy and they're energetic and they're mean and they're aggressive. And they're everything we are.

O'NEILL: Except not quite potty-trained.

Sartore has been blogging his zoo project on Geographic's website and selling prints to raise money. Only 4,000 left to go. Leave it to this guy to get it done.

Claire O'Neill, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can see Joel Sartore at work and some of his images on our Web site, npr.org.


And among the animals he's been photographing over the years are these small monkeys called cotton-top tamarins. There are only about a hundred left in captivity, including a female who was stolen and then returned to a zoo in Australia about a year ago. The animal, named Conchetta, was pregnant at the time, but miscarried during that whole ordeal.

MONTAGNE: Now, happily, Conchetta has given birth for the first time, reports the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Only three cotton-top tamarins were born all of last year. Zoo officials said they won't know the gender of Conchetta's baby for months, and they'll ask the public for help in choosing its name. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.