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‘Photo Ark’ a quest to document global biodiversity: Q&A with photographer Joel Sartore and director Chun-Wei Yi

Joel Sartore, red wolves

  • The film “RARE: Creatures of the Photo Ark” follows National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore as he travels the world snapping pictures of thousands of different animal species.
  • In the last 12 years, Sartore has photographed nearly 8,000 species.
  • “RARE: Creatures of the Photo Ark” was named Best Conservation Film at the New York WILD Film Festival.

At turns haunting, humorous or just downright bizarre, the studio portraits of the thousands of animal species that photographer Joel Sartore has collected are more than just a catalog of life on Earth. When someone sees one of his photographs for the National Geographic Photo Ark, Sartore wants the encounter, often with an animal looking directly into the camera’s lens, to be inspiring.

A recent three-part film documents the lengths to which he’ll go to take the most compelling images and showcase our planet’s biodiversity. “RARE: Creatures of the Photo Ark” follows Sartore through jungle treks and sittings with ornery birds, and the filmmakers will be honored Thursday for Best Conservation Film at the New York WILD Film Festival, held at the Explorers Club in Manhattan.

An endangered Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, in Nebraska, taken for the National Geographic Photo Ark. © Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark.

Sartore isn’t picky about the species he photographs. He’s trained his lens on raccoons and dung beetles as eagerly as he has on critically endangered orangutans and rhinos. But there’s a sense of urgency with the rarer animals. Yes, it’s an image for posterity, a snapshot of life as it exists at this moment in time before some of these animals disappear forever. But Sartore also knows that it might just be the push that someone needs to make a difference.

“I want people to care, to fall in love, and to take action,” Sartore says on the project’s website.

To his mind, the global extinction crisis isn’t just about the potential loss of a species. It’s an issue that affects us all.

“It’s folly to think that we can drive half of everything else to extinction, but that people will be just fine,” Sartore says in the opening moments of the film.

Sartore and director Chun-Wei Yi spoke to Mongabay about making the documentary, sharing stories from the field and explaining why the Photo Ark project is so important.


Mongabay: How long have you been working on the Photo Ark, and what was the original impetus behind the project?

Joel Sartore: I started about 12 years ago. My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Though she’s fine now, her treatment took about a year, and I stayed home to take care of her and our three young children. During my time at home, I began to think more and more about what I might do with the second half of my life and career in order to make a difference. That’s how the Ark got started, and I’ve been going at it ever since.

How did you first hear about Joel’s work and the Photo Ark? What made you decide to feature his work as the subject of a documentary?

Chun-Wei Yi: I met Joel back in 2006 or 2007 through Stella Cha [the film’s producer and writer] during my early days at National Geographic Television & Film. This was soon after he had started what was to become the Photo Ark (with a naked mole rat), and I was immediately blown away by what kind of impact eye contact with an animal could have on someone. Stella and Joel had already made a bunch of films together and were longtime colleagues with [executive producer] John Bredar. With Joel’s humor and passion driving the story, John had always thought that a behind-the-scenes look at these intimate portraits would be hilariously revealing.

Fast forward to 2013, Joel now had over 3,000 species in the Photo Ark, and I helped him produce and edit a video about his latest work. Once John saw it, he had a pitch tape to send to commissioners. It took a few years, but we eventually found ourselves in eight different countries filming some of the rarest animals in the world, a couple with population counts in the single digits.

Three yearling Burmese star tortoises (Geochelone platynota), a critically endangered species, at the Turtle Conservancy, taken for the National Geographic Photo Ark. © Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark.

What was it like traveling to all these different locations to film Joel as he took photos of endangered animals? Did any of the locations present significant obstacles to filming due to remoteness or ruggedness of terrain, etc.?

Yi: The scientists and rangers on the front lines of conservation put in an unimaginable amount of work day after day in some of the harshest conditions in the world. We wanted audiences to get a taste of that, and what better way to do that than to put Joel in harm’s way. I’m only half joking, but really, Joel’s up for anything that’ll get species the attention they need and deserve.

The trips we made to New Zealand and Cameroon required a fair bit of hiking. Now, hiking with 25-40 pounds [11-18 kilograms] of gear is one thing. Hiking while filming with 25-40 pounds of gear is another. To give a sense of the ruggedness in Cameroon, we hiked over 40 kilometers [25 miles] in three days, which at first doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you factor in over 3,000 feet [914 meters] of total elevation changes, up and down thick forest mountains and valleys that gorillas prefer, your already-deep appreciation for the cinematographer, Erin Harvey, and sound recordist, Rodrigo Salvatierra, grows exponentially. Last but not least, our support crew of warm and friendly porters made everything possible.

And in New Zealand, a protected forest is a dense forest. So during a trek with a biologist looking for a rare kiwi nest, even though the hike was less than a mile long, it took over six hours to cover it … and you too can suffer through this hike with Joel all throughout the third and last episode!

You photograph your 5,000th species in the course of the film, a Persian leopard in Budapest. Are all 5,000 species endangered?

Sartore: We photograph all species, great and small, rare or common. The goal is to show what biodiversity looks like at this point in time. We’re nearing 8,000 species photographed now, by the way.

You also photographed one of the rarest species of rhinoceros in the world, the northern white rhino, in the Czech Republic. What’s it like to encounter so many endangered animals? I imagine you must eventually wish you could do more than just photograph them.

Sartore: You bet, I wish I could save them all, and that’s what I’m trying to do through the Photo Ark. It’s humbling and a big responsibility to tell the story of these animals before they leave us. I’m determined to do it as well as I can in order to prevent further extinction.

How do you go about finding them?

Sartore: I approach the zoos, aquariums, wildlife rehab centers and private breeders wherever I’m going to speak. I also target specific places housing species that I’ve been hoping to get.

After a photo shoot for the National Geographic Photo Ark at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, a clouded leopard cub (Neofelis nebulosa) climbs on Joel Sartore’s head. The leopards, which live in Asian tropical forests, are illegally hunted for their spotted pelts. © Photo by GRAHM S. JONES, COLUMBUS ZOO AND AQUARIUM.

Have you prioritized certain endangered animals over others, or are you just systematically trying to photograph them all?

Sartore: I do look for extremely rare animals, hoping to get to them before they’re not found in human care anymore.

Do you have any favorites?

Sartore: The next one.

Do you have any favorite moments in the film?

Yi: It’s always fun to watch Joel at his best. A perfect example of this is from the very beginning of the second episode where Joel drops to his knees near the end of an unsuccessful 10-hour hike in the highlands of Cameroon. He’s tagging along with Wildlife Conservation Society [WCS] scientists who study the Cross River gorilla, and unlike Joel, they do this hike every day.

Since their 4 a.m. start time, the team hasn’t seen any of the world’s rarest gorillas and Joel hasn’t shot a single frame either. We’re rolling on him and figure we’re getting more funny “exhausted Joel” footage, but we soon realize he’s not capitulating. Rather, he’s digging through a fresh pile of cow dung!

I’ve never seen anyone more excited about poop. As he peels back each moist lump, we see the gold he’s after: dung beetles. A herd of cattle have infiltrated the gorilla sanctuary, and from within this cow pie about the size of a personal pan pizza, he pulls out four new species of dung beetle to add to the Photo Ark.

All I could think was, “This guy knows how to get a picture.” He’s always figuring out different ways to show people how our planet works and the animals with which we share it. After witnessing scenes like that, you really begin to understand how this guy has built his Photo Ark to over 7,000 species. Just when I thought he was too exhausted to go on, he was really just getting started and went on to photograph those dung beetles late into the night back at camp by generator. I think he even returned those beetles to a dung pile. I’m not too sure — I was asleep by then.

A Fiji Island banded iguana (Brachylophus fasciatus) at the Los Angeles Zoo, taken for the National Geographic Photo Ark. © Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark.

How does it feel to have the project documented in film? Will it help raise the profile of these endangered species even further?

Sartore: Yes, the more coverage the better. This is a public awareness campaign that will span many decades. We need to make folks aware that all species need our empathy and our support. And they need habitat to survive as well. That’s critical. We must leave some areas of the Earth alone so that species can thrive in those places.

The best part is that when we save other species, we’re actually saving ourselves as well. We need bees and other pollinating insects to bring us fruits and vegetables. We need healthy, intact rainforests to regulate rainfall around the planet, the moisture we need to grow our crops. These ecological functions are crucial to human survival. The sooner all of us realize that, the sooner we can start to save nature, and ourselves in the process.

In the end, what is the main story you’re trying to tell here? And what do you hope your documentary can achieve?

Yi: We wanted to tackle a word that many of us may find boring: biodiversity. We may turn off at its mention, but Joel taught me a great analogy early on — that our planet is like a plane and all the species in the world are like the rivets keeping the plane intact and flying. Now you lose a few of those rivets and the plane’s OK — we’re still flying. But you lose enough of them or lose ones in critical places, and the plane’s going down with us in it. To extend this analogy a little bit further, we’re not just passive passengers. In fact, each one of us helps run the airline company, so the integrity of the plane (or planet) is on us.

Like Joel says about his pictures, we’re hoping to get people to care about these animals while we still have time to save them. If we can get folks to look at an animal differently, see the value in them and their direct role in our lives, then we’re getting the idea and importance of biodiversity across.

Awareness is also a goal. If folks Google something about a species or come away with a new favorite animal after watching these shows, the necessary global awareness is growing and that’s progress. And if a kid watching Joel or the scientists in our films realizes that she wants to do the same with her life, that’s great bonus points.

A pair of red wolves (Canis rufus gregoryi) at the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, taken for the National Geographic Photo Ark. © Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark.

Have you seen any impacts from your photography?

Sartore: The Florida grasshopper sparrow got extra protection (extra funding) from the federal government after Photo Ark coverage turned into an Audubon magazine cover story. But overall the goal is to raise public awareness, get people to realize that there are many other amazing species that we share the planet with and that the future of life on Earth really is in our hands now.

When and where can the public see the film? What are your distribution plans for the film after the festival?

Yi: The three films aired on PBS over the summer of 2017. It’s currently streaming on PBS and Amazon Prime now, and [it’s] available on DVD or Blu-Ray as well.

We’ve been talking with National Geographic about the possibility of making a new season, so we will have to see if that could come together. If so, viewers would get to travel around the world with Joel again, meet more amazing species and the scientists dedicated to saving them and see what other lengths Joel will go to get a photo!

Editor’s note: this interview has been edited  for style and length.

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