Building a Modern Ark

Joel Sartore wants a close-up of every captive species on earth—as many as 12,000 animals—before it's too late.

Explore an interactive grid of some of the photos in the Photo Ark. 

Joel Sartore still remembers the feel of his bare feet sinking into the soggy carpet. It was the fall of 2005, and he was standing in a leaky trailer that passed for a hotel in Kaktovic, Alaska, where he had come to photograph a National Geographic story about leasing out Alaska’s North Slope for energy extraction.

An elaborate plan to photograph a wild polar bear feeding on a whale carcass was underway, but for three days he’d been socked in by blustery winds and bad weather. So he was on the phone with his wife, Kathy, telling her the shoot was going to take longer than he thought. “There was this pause on the other end of the line,” Sartore recounted. A few minutes later he was asking, “Are you saying you’re going to divorce me because I’m gone too much?”

He told her how expensive the trip had been; how tremendous the shot would be if he got it; how it might be the only opportunity he’d ever have to photograph a polar bear.

All good excuses, she told him.

“So I packed up and I went home to Nebraska the next day,” he said.

Nine weeks later Kathy was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. For the next year, while she was going through chemotherapy, Sartore discovered what it was like to raise three children. Until then he hadn’t even changed a diaper on his two-year-old; he was too busy chasing the next story. “I was so bad that once I tried to convince Kathy’s midwife to induce labor to get me out on the road the next day,” he said. After his wife’s diagnosis, life ground to an unfamiliar halt.

“I was like a cat in a cage, pacing around,” he told me. “I needed to shoot something.” He tried fruit and flowers, things he could find around the house. But when that didn’t cut it, he went to the local zoo. On Kathy’s good days, he shot portraits of animals on black or white backgrounds at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo. First a naked mole rat. Then two poison dart frogs. Soon he was clicking through the zoo’s collection.

After a while, Sartore showed some of the work to National Geographic photo editor Kathy Moran. Seeing the potential in those photos and knowing his passion for conservation stories, she asked if he would like to use the technique for a piece on America’s endangered species. “That assignment was a really good way to come back after Kathy got healthy,” Sartore said.

Still, it wasn’t a strong start. “When the pictures started coming in they were a bit clumsy,” Moran remembered. And understandably, she said. “Here’s this guy who was used to being out in the field. He was first and foremost a photojournalist, which isn’t about making things happen; it’s about capturing moments as they evolve in front of you. Now he was taking all that energy and talent and turning it toward something that was completely new.”

The tight constraints of working with captive animals presented a huge learning curve, Moran said. “When I look back at those first images, they weren’t as sophisticated as they have become. Some were really engaging, and others were a little flat. I think there was a worry that our readers weren’t going to connect with this kind of photography. That’s when we started blending Joel’s two skill sets: isolating a couple of these species and then looking at the threats—habitat destruction, invasive species, whatever it happened to be. It created a balance, and we’ve continued to use that model whenever we put these stories forth.”

After the endangered species assignment, Sartore just kept going, launching into a project he now calls the Photo Ark. Funded by sales of his wildlife prints, a National Geographic mission programs’ grant, and speaking fees, and with hopes of finding a major sponsor, his collection of portraits has become an ambitious effort to document all captive species on earth. He estimates there are as many as 12,000 species in captivity in the world’s zoos and aquariums, and so far he has photographed 4,320 of them. “I’ll keep going until I drop,” he told me. “I figure another 10 or 15 years—that’ll get us there. What began as just a way for me to continue shooting became this big, epic project that I’m going to devote basically my entire working life to.”

The first time I saw Sartore beating the drum for the Ark was at the historic 1920s Golden State Theatre in Monterey, California, where he was preparing to take the stage to talk about what it’s like to be a big-shot photographer. Sartore, 52, stepped from behind the curtain, wearing a brown sports jacket, dark pants, and dress shoes. Right away he addressed some of the big questions people always ask: Best place he’s ever been? “Antarctica,” he told the audience. “It’s as pristine as it always was. No contrails. And the animals are fearless of humans.”

Next: Any near-death experiences? “Yeah, I’ve had my scary moments.” Like when he was repeatedly charged by an angry muskox; when a polar bear tried to pry him out of a van; when a caiman bit through the dome of his underwater housing in the Pantanal; and when his plane nearly crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way there have also been drunken cowboys, angry loggers, snarling mad dogs. “Bad dogs make great pictures,” he said.

And: How do you get a job like this? “I started out in college taking pictures of things that were weird, or unusual, or just funny. If I’m asked to do a story on America’s state fairs, I know to go for things that are visually loaded,” he said, advancing his photos on a big screen. Like the creepy mother-daughter look-alike contest in Iowa or the cockroach tractor pull in Indiana. He paused. “I don’t care if it’s people at state fairs or grizzly bears—a good picture’s a good picture. You want people to read the captions. You want them to learn.”

Sartore has traveled to plenty of exotic places, on all seven continents, but what he really wants to do more than anything else is visit zoos and aquariums to photograph animals. Because he’s not just photographing interesting subjects anymore—he’s on a mission. “I call this project the Photo Ark,” he told his audience, showing a larger-than-life tiger made even bigger against an ebony backdrop. “I use the backgrounds because it isolates the animal, lets you look them in the eye. And it gives equal weight to all creatures, great and small. It shows the beauty and grace and power in a mouse—he is no less important than a polar bear. They’re both the same size in these pictures.”

He flipped to another slide, a Rabb’s fringe-limbed tree frog, very likely the last of its kind. “One-third to one-half of all amphibians are going to go extinct in the next 10 years,” he said. “Parts of South America have already lost 40 percent of their amphibian diversity. To lose even one species, it’s tragic.”

Sartore finds comfort in the species that have thus far been rescued from the brink: giant pandas, black-footed ferrets, California Condors, Whooping Cranes. Those animals’ populations remain alarmingly low—in the mere hundreds—but they might have disappeared altogether if not for publicity, their natural charisma, and determined efforts to save them. “It’s tough to get people to pay attention, because it just doesn’t affect their daily lives. They figure, Why should I care if a rabbit or a frog goes extinct? Is it going to affect what I make at work? Or is it going to affect my love life? Not in the short term. But I tell you, it’s really folly to think that you can doom everything else to extinction and not have it come back to bite us hard.”

When the lights went up, the crowd applauded, and Sartore moved to the lobby to answer questions and sign books. The next day we drove over to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to meet an albatross named Makana.

Behind two sets of doors and down the hall from an exam room where an otter was having a post-partum physical, there was a quiet conference room set up with lights, tripods, bags of camera lenses, and a small blue box containing a Horned Puffin. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s associate curator of birds, Aimee Greenebaum, carefully opened the box. Out popped the puffin, a pudgy black-and-white, football-size bird with a chunky yellow bill and those eponymous spikes above its eyes.

Sartore sat on a plastic office chair at the opening of a white fabric box positioned at the end of a table. In went the puffin, scratching the bottom of the box as it tried to get a foothold. Sartore peeked inside and slid a pair of black and white mats under the bird, with the black on top. “I want to make sure I have a good face shot,” he said. “Then we’ll try the white.”

He ran his hand through his hair, hunched over his camera, and ducked under a black sheet. The shutter sounded like the deliberate punching of keys on an old typewriter: Thack, thack. Thack. He looked at the camera. “It’s not great. He’s walking around a lot.” Then slipped under the sheet again.

Next up was a Laysan Albatross. “Makana’s coming! Makana’s coming,” shouted the aquarium’s communications content manager, Karen Jeffries. “Get ready. Okay, bring her in.”

Makana, a big, white-headed seabird with long, narrow wings and a stout neck, was rolled into the room sitting atop a waist-high cart pushed by aviculturist Nat Wong. Makana is one of the aquarium’s star performers, known for occasionally trying to court men—especially if they’re tall—in typical albatross fashion: bobbing her neck, clacking, and pointing her beak. She’s even been flown on a private jet to be a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

It was Wong who, after hearing Sartore speak at a conference, approached him to come shoot Makana and the other animals in the aquarium’s collection. “He’s helping all these animals to be seen and be heard, and I think that’s important,” Wong told me. 

For the rest of the afternoon there was a revolving line of blue boxes: Black Oystercatcher, Dunlin, Western Snowy Plover and six fuzzy chicks, Least Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Red Phalarope, Sanderling, Short-billed Dowitcher, Semipalmated Plover.

By the time Sartore climbed into his car, tired and hungry, the sun was beginning to set over Monterey Bay. “We shot 911 frames, 13 types of birds, and 6 chicks,” he said. “It was a good day—and nobody died or got injured.”

Sartore obsesses over using his work to make a difference, and he’s not opposed to staging a picture if it gets the point across. He once made a photograph that showed 45 dead koalas of all ages and sizes strewn across a blue tarp, every one of them, including a mother curled up with her baby, killed by domestic dogs. The photo went viral, helping to raise attention to the plight of koalas. A few months later the Australian government declared the koala imperiled and designated protections. “I can’t say that a picture did that,” said Sartore, “but I like to think it helped.”

When he got word from someone at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saying the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow was on the edge of extinction, Sartore called Audubon. “The biologists told me the bird really needed media attention; everyone had pretty much written it off—it’s just a little brown bird, and it lives in the few remnant prairies left in central Florida.” Sartore took the pictures and Ted Williams wrote the story (“On the Edge,” March-April 2013). “The cover said, ‘End of the Line?’ ” Sartore said. “And what do you know—it worked.”

After the article, the agency’s $20,000 to $30,000 budget to preserve the bird got bumped to nearly $1.3 million to save it. “Joel’s work was instrumental,” said FWS biologist Sandra Sneckenberger. “People think extinctions are happening in faraway places, but Joel can make it very real with his photos of endemic species that are on the brink.”

Sartore knows saving the sparrow is a race against time. “But it beats doing nothing. Because we know what the alternative was—certain extinction. So that gives us hope. Now we need to do that for every species in trouble.”

The sad truth is that some species will be gone from the wild before he can even take their picture—the Javan rhino, for instance, with as few as 35 animals existing in nature. Still, if Sartore does manage to photograph upwards of 12,000 species, it will be an incredible feat, providing the biggest photographic archive of biodiversity ever created.

And if he can’t last long enough to complete the Ark, then his son Cole will. “He’s got a great eye,” Sartore said. “You know, John James Audubon’s son, John Woodhouse, picked up [his painting] and finished the quadrupeds when Audubon’s mind started to go. Cole would do a great job. He’s been with me enough. He knows how it’s done.”

Cole, who is 20, doesn’t own a camera; his thing is video. But he says he would take up the baton. “If something were to happen, I do see how important it is to finish,” Cole told me. “I hope he’s around for many decades to come and that he can take care of it. But if he can’t, I would.”

Last year Cole got cancer—Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stage 3. Fortunately, his chemo worked, and the doctors say if he goes for five years without a recurrence, he’ll essentially be cured. Meanwhile, his mom, Kathy, remains healthy. She and Sartore now have an agreement about how much time he can be away. “When we first talked about the deal, it was supposed to be two weeks, maximum,” Kathy said. “Then he stretched it to 21 days, and I agreed. Now it’s been pushed to 24 or 25 days—and no more than half a year. That’s the deal.”

Sartore is trying to keep that promise. The last I heard from him, he was headed for the Louisville Zoo, where there’s a pair of woolly monkeys—the only ones in captivity in North America. Then on to St. Louis for a Horned Guan, which he describes as “a turkey wearing a party hat.” The guan is an endangered species, threatened by logging, fire, and agriculture that are destroying its habitat in Central America. It would make an incredible photograph, he said, and he was armed with a plus-size fabric photo box sturdy enough to hold the bird for its close-up. “I’ve got the big tent,” he said, “and I’m not afraid to use it.”