National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore measures his life in stories, from one to the next.
He bought his first house in Nebraska while he was on assignment in the Gulf Coast. His son was born in the middle of a long project about the Endangered Species Act. His daughter came along with a pack of gray wolves. And it was during his story on Alaska’s loss of wilderness that a piece of his own innocence was stolen.
In the middle of the North Slope, his wife, Kathy, was diagnosed with breast cancer. His beautiful, graceful and patient muse of the last 22 years — the girl with long blonde hair he first met at a college blues bar — was dying.
And there was nothing he could do, except be there.
All photography and travel ceased when she found the egg-sized tumor in her right breast on Thanksgiving. By Christmas, she was weak and bedridden. Some days, she was so sick from the chemo that she couldn’t watch television. One day, she couldn’t even speak.
Cancer wreaked havoc on their family and household. It was a thief, he said, but in some ways, it was a blessing, too. With work no longer taking precedent, Sartore became a better father and a more present husband. His wife’s battle forced him to make amends, to set things right, to slow down and concentrate on living. To, ultimately, pay attention.
If his project, “Photo Ark,” could talk, it would say the same.
“I’ve been given an extraordinary gift twice,” Sartore said during a recent telephone interview from his home in Nebraska. “One is, my wife’s recovered, and it’ll be 15 years this fall since she was diagnosed. So she’s okay. And the other was the opportunity to stop and reevaluate and think about trying to do something that doesn’t just vanish in a month, like a magazine story — to do something that lasts.”
Out of the ashes came an unplanned, and unprecedented, project to help save the world’s species, on view from Thursday, June 27, through September 8 at the Southampton Arts Center. The Photo Ark began in 2005 — with Sartore as its proverbial Noah — and now lives as a database and traveling exhibition of 9,720 portraits to date.
And he refuses to stop until he has documented all 12,000 animals under human care.
“The Photo Ark is not just cute pictures of animals. It teaches you to think about, ‘What are the threats to these animals? Oh geez, I can fight that right here at home,’” he said. “You don’t have to do anything exotic. We can literally turn the tide of extinction for these animals, and save ourselves in the process, just by being better consumers, by being better stewards at home. Those are the things it’s really opened my eyes to.”
Not far from where he lives now, Sartore grew up in the Nebraskan fields, regularly tasked with mowing the lawn for his parents and simultaneously dodging the bees buzzing around every dandelion.
This year, he hasn’t seen a single one.
“I just wonder how much further can we push nature until it threatens our existence,” he said. “Without nature intact, we’re not gonna make it ourselves. This is about the future of humanity, as well. Now is the time.”
Today, more than 26,000 animal species worldwide are threatened with extinction. Human activity is responsible for environmental derogation, ecosystem devastation and habitat destruction so extreme that many animals are now impossible to find in the wild — the reason why Sartore primarily works with zoos, aquariums, private breeders and wildlife rehabilitation centers for his portraits.
Fifteen years ago, his first stop was the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, just one mile from his house, where a zookeeper took a white cutting board from the kitchen and placed a naked mole rat on top of it, creating a studio-like effect for Sartore and his camera.
At that time, he had no intention of photographing every species in captivity around the world against a white or black background. That’s changed. From ants to elephants, Sartore treats each of his subjects — great and small, rare or common — with the same amount of affection and respect, always striving to make eye contact with them through his lens, whenever possible.
“This process, or technique, allows us to really look them in the eye and see that there’s grace and beauty there,” he said, “and that it’s really important to save them, I think.”
Clearly, not all of the animals are interested in being saved with a close-up, Sartore said. He’s dodged a charging bear, lion, elephant and musk ox — all on separate occasions. He has a finger and thumb that are just about numb from being bitten so many times. He has nearly died in multiple car and truck wrecks while on assignment, from driving in icy weather to guides falling asleep at the wheel, and contracted leishmaniasis, a microscopic flesh-eating parasite, while shooting in Madidi National Park in Bolivia.
The only way to treat it was a month of chemotherapy and, to this day, he has a whole dead spot in his leg. But even the female phlebotomous sand fly that carried the leishmaniasis has a story, he said, and Sartore wants to tell it.
“The portraits have really allowed me to give a great deal of attention to the least among us, in terms of species, like the sparrows and the minnows and the salamanders, things that are not gorillas and tigers, you know?” he said. “Those animals don’t get any press at all, and they desperately need their stories told, too, before they go extinct. A lot of them have never even been photographed, or photographed well, or alive.”
At age 56, Sartore estimates it will take him another decade to finish the project.
“We have to go farther to get fewer. It’ll get done, one way or another,” he said. “And if I run out of time for any reason, my son Cole, who’s 25, he’ll probably take over for me. I figure, by the time I’m 70, I’ll be done in every way you can be done.”
If his blunt delivery seems grim, it shouldn’t. Following his wife’s diagnosis, and subsequent remission, Sartore has a heightened sense of time — an awareness only amplified by Photo Ark.
He acknowledges and appreciates every part of every day, he said. And on warm summer nights, when the Sartores sit together on their porch at sunset, they simply hold hands, listening to the crickets chirp — and, if they’re lucky, the gibbons hootin’ and hollerin’ from the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, where the photographer began his life’s work nearly 10,000 animals ago.
“It is tiring just looking at it. You bet it is,” he said of the Photo Ark. “It’s a lot of work. But for a lot of these little bitty species, it’s the only chance they’re ever gonna have to tell their stories, especially minnows and these little bitty insects. Their stories could save not only them, but us. So I’m always inspired, I never get tired of it. I’m just itching to go again, get the next species in.”
As published in the Sag Harbor Express