KidSpirit Editor Interviews National Geographic Photographer Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore and Sybille NkunzimanaApril 8, 2024Crisis & ChangePerSpectives

Artwork by National Geographic Photo Ark 15th Anniversary Montage

Join KidSpirit Editor Sybille Nkunzimana for a Conversation with National Geographic Photographer and Creator of The Photo Ark Joel Sartore. Each Monday for the next seven weeks KidSpirit will release a new segment from their conversation — stay tuned for more next week!

Part 1

Sybille Nkunzimana: It's so great to be here with you today, Joel. I'm really excited for you to share some of your knowledge and insights with our KidSpirit community online.

Joel Sartore: Excellent. Well, I'm ready for your questions!

Sybille Nkunzimana:
So you have photographed over 15,000 different species over the course of your Photo Ark project — from elephants that weigh several thousand tons, to tiny insects that you can barely even see. So, which size animal do you find the most challenging to work with, and what are some precautions that you take in your work to stay safe?

Joel Sartore: That's a good question. I did field assignments in the wild for about 17 years for National Geographic, and I would try to align myself with biologists who knew what they were doing. If I was working on lion tracking in Uganda, I would go out with the lion tracker. I would go out with the person who's done it a long time with no scars. We don't wanna see anybody that's been chewed up. You know, we have to remember that when we're in the wild, we're in the animal's home. And so, if you've got animals charging you or attacking, you're doing something completely wrong, because you're freaking the animals out. So we try to avoid that. I don't have very many close-call stories because of that, which is a good thing. But I document everything from mountain gorillas in Uganda, to lions out on the plains of that country, to polar bears and muskox up in the north of the Arctic Circle, and Jaguars in the Amazon Rainforest of Bolivia.

A two-month old, federally endangered jaguar cub (Panthera onca) named Teiku at the Parque Zoologico Nacional in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

So, to answer your question, I really hang out with good people. I hang out with people who really provide abundant intention and care, whether they're in the wild, or whether they're working on animals that are in captivity. We really try to listen to them, do what those people say, and reduce stress on animals and ourselves in the process.

Sybille Nkunzimana: That's an amazing approach. You definitely want to be with people who understand that you're entering an environment that's not your own and that you need to be respectful.

Joel Sartore: One hundred percent.

Part 2

Sybille Nkunzimana: That leads me into my next question, I feel like that might be a bit stressful for [the animals] because they're entering unknown environments with bright lights and flashing cameras. So, what do you do on your part to limit stress and anxiety on the part of animals you photograph?

A group of vulnerable (IUCN) Arabian gazelles (Gazella arabica), Arabian sand gazelles (Gazella marica) and endangered (IUCN) and federally endangered Arabian mountain gazelles (Gazella gazella cora) at the Dubai Safari Park in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
A Hartmann's mountain zebra and her baby (Equus zebra hartmannae) at Hogle Zoo.

Joel Sartore: That's a great question, and we think about that all the time. [...] Number one, we don't use bright lights. It's not Hollywood and it's also not paparazzi. We can shoot without any lights at all. [...]

I can also control the flashes, which are buried in these soft boxes to soften the light. The flash is only a 10,000th of a second or a 15,000th of a second, so it doesn't register any more than it would to you or I, and doesn't hurt the animal's eyes.

We also try to work very quickly [...] we're often shooting through a little hole in a fence or through a screen of some sort, and we're quiet and respectful. We're not talking, we're not laughing. It's not a party. It's work. We get done in just a few minutes and then the animal goes on and finishes their lunch. So, we're really mindful of that and that’s very much top-of-mind for us, and we've never had a problem doing that. We're at almost 16,000 species now.

Sybille Nkunzimana: Wow, that's amazing.

Red eyed tree frog, Agalychnis callidryas, photographed in Seattle, Washington, 2011.

Joel Sartore: Well, I've been doing this now for about almost 18 years—that's all I do. So, let's say we get a little frog, we make sure he's moist and cool, we put him into a tabletop shooting tent. Same with a little lizard or maybe a small snake. If we have small birds, they also go into a soft, white, cloth shooting tent. Light can come through, but the animal stays in there. And again, the animal only sees the small front of my lens—they don't see me because the lens comes in through a little lens port. They don't see me, they don't hear me, and the tent is small and it can be taken right back to the animal’s enclosure and opened up, and the bird flies out, or the frog hops out. So it's fairly straightforward that way. [...] The preparation is far more time consuming than the shooting. The shooting is the quick part.

A veiled chameleon, Chamaeleo calyptratus, confronts a camera lens at Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure, Salina, Kansas, 2007
An Oregon aquatic garter snake (Thamnophis atratus hydrophilus) named Ribbon at Lindsay Wildlife Experience in California.

Sybille Nkunzimana: It must be. These are some pretty impressive animals that you're dealing with in your project. It's pretty amazing.

Part 3

Sybille Nkunzimana: How does one even enter that field [wildlife photography]? When did you first realize that this is what you wanted to do with your life?

Joel Sartore: I want to add one other point to what we just talked about: the reason for the black and white backgrounds, and the reason for not just photographing animals in the wild. The Photo Ark does photograph large animals, but it's really built for the small things that would never get any attention, and some of them are so rare they could go extinct. [For example] a tiny little brown sparrow is never going to have a complete story done on it anywhere, so we give these animals an equal voice. There's no size comparison in these portraits and we can look them in the eye because there are no distractions. All animals are the same size. The sparrow is the same size as a walrus or an elephant. [...] This is our opportunity to see what biodiversity looks like in all its forms, equally.

A pair of house sparrows, Passer domesticus hufufae, photographed at Sheikh Butti Maktoum Wildlife in Dubai, United Arab Emirates
An African elephant, Loxodonta africana, at the Indianapolis Zoo.

Now, in terms of how I got the job—[it] was something I wanted to do since I was a little kid. My parents subscribed to National Geographic, and they told me I could do anything I wanted, and be anything I wanted, but I couldn't give up. And that suited my personality—I'm kind of a Type-A guy and I don't give up. So, I went to school, got a degree in journalism because I figured that would be helpful, got a job with the school newspaper, and then [I worked] as a street photographer in Wichita, Kansas at the largest newspaper in the state, the Wichita Eagle. Then eventually, I met somebody from National Geographic— that was like 35 years ago—and I've been with them ever since. So for me, it was just being persistent.

And I would say that to anybody listening today: no matter what your parents tell you, good or bad, you determine where you go. You determine how far you'll go in life. Just pick something you love. I was absolutely in love with National Geographic and animals, so when my parents told me I could, and I should, then I believed them and they gave me a lot of support. And then my college professors told me that I could, and I should, so I just kept going. You put it in your mind that you're going to do something and eventually it happens. But it takes years. To get on with Geographic from the time I started—it was 10 years of working towards that, so that's really the way to do it. But if you, if you think, “ah, I kind of wanna work there,” or “ah, maybe.” Not for tough jobs, not for jobs that everybody wants to do. You have to really be dedicated.

Sybille Nkunzimana: I think that's a really important lesson. It's amazing having people behind you who support you and who believe in you, but I think that even if you don't you have to act as your own support system. You have to believe in yourself and tell yourself that you can do it. Because nobody wants to be trapped doing something that they don't like, or that doesn't fulfill them. And I think doing something that you love is really the most important thing ever.

Joel Sartore: That’s right. [...] Pick what you love and you'll stick with it. Whether it's food insecurity, or homelessness, or single use plastics, or getting feral cats off the street because they need a home and because they kill a lot of wild birds—it could be just a million different things—but just pick something you love. And then as you go through life, if you're doing something you love, it doesn't get any better than that, that's the ultimate goal.

Sybille Nkunzimana: It really is. I also like what you said about evening-out the playing field and making sure that all animals are put on the same level as us, because we're all just trying to live our lives and be happy and be fulfilled. I think that once you start developing these weird hierarchies and thinking "this creature is more important than this one," it's never positive. It always ends up being a bad thing.

Joel Sartore: I agree. I view animals as equal to us—they're thoughtful, sentient beings and they deserve a basic right to exist. And as they go away, so could we. We have to have insects for fruits and vegetables, we have to have plants to provide us with oxygen and stabilize the climate, we have to have healthy seas to provide us with oxygen. So it's really imperative that people understand that as these other species go away, so could we.

I wanted to mention one other thing for young people who are watching this. Let's say that you didn't have parents like mine who were super embracing and encouraging and were big cheerleaders. [...] If you've had a situation that's less than ideal and your parents are telling you that you won't amount to anything—don't you believe them. Don't believe them for a second, because they don't know. Nobody knows! I didn't even know whether I'd be successful with National Geographic. Nobody knows how far you'll go, but your best shot is to pick something you really have dreamed of doing. I don't care whether it's being an astronaut or studying rhinos in South Africa, if you work towards it, your odds go way up. I'm not saying it's guaranteed, but your odds go way up if you believe in yourself. Because truly nobody knows what any of us are capable of. I'm just a guy of very average intelligence coming out of Ralston, Nebraska. There were no National Geographic photographers there to learn from. I just read the magazine and understood what types of things they were interested in, and I was interested in the same things,and it gelled.

But I just want to tell kids: don't give up no matter what. Just stick with it. And not everybody can do that, not everybody is disciplined enough. But it's possible. If you look at me, I mean, anything's possible! I feel very lucky to work for National Geographic. I really do.

Sybille Nkunzimana: Thank you for that message. It's really important to understand that no matter where we find ourselves in life, we can always do it if we set our minds to it.

Joel Sartore: At least give it our best shot. That's right.

Part 4

Sybille Nkunzimana: Unfortunately, throughout history, we've domesticated certain animals and forced certain animals to reproduce for our own benefit, and they're not put on the same level as some of the animals that you photograph in your Photo Ark. So how do you think we can encourage people to begin to value species that they don't traditionally show empathy towards?

Joel Sartore: Good question. To catch myself a little bit, when I say, “all animals are equal to us,” I once had a kid call me out on that during the Q and A session after a talk I gave. He said, “You mean a grasshopper is as important as me?” I said, “No, I guess I can't say that.” But where do you draw the line? Like, orangutans are beautiful and very thoughtful, and dolphins have the biggest brain-mass per body-mass. So how do we say what's worthy and what's not? They're all worthy of saving.

An endangered baby Bornean orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus, with her adoptive mother, a Bornean/Sumatran cross, Pongo pygmaeus x abelii, at the Houston Zoo, Texas, 2013.

But how do we get people to care about the little things? The littlest things really are what run the world. The famed biologist E.O. Wilson told me himself one time, I'd spent some time in a field camp with him, he said, “Without ants, people would die. Without ants, we could not survive.” They clean everything up, they do so much pollination, and they really are architects of the terrestrial world. It's really critical that people start to have some empathy, and start thinking about more than just politics and who won the ball game.

A soil-dwelling carpenter ant (Camponotus vicinus) from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

[...] So that's what the hallmark is to me: trying to get people to just meet these animals. Let's meet them and try to understand their importance and why that little minnow in the stream is important. They have to have clean, cool water. So do we. If we doom these things, we're really not doing ourselves any favors.

But there are a lot of opportunities to really do good by the world, and to make the world a better place in [areas like] renewable energy and in recycling. It's an exciting time. This is the most exciting time ever to be in conservation, because we can reach the whole world with our ideas and with good deeds. [...] It's a very exciting time to be alive.

Part 5

Sybille Nkunzimana: One more thing that I really wanted to ask you was: what can the average person do to address the extinction crisis, or raise awareness about it, and are we contributing negatively to it without even knowing?

Joel Sartore: Great question. I always say, start at home. Start in your own backyard. Let's talk about planting native plants, and nectar-bearing plants, to help support bees and butterflies. That's a huge deal. It's cheap, it's fun, it's good for the air you breathe! It's good for the water people drink because those native plants can’t tolerate herbicides, and they can't tolerate insecticides. Let's start planting native gardens.

A male Western leafcutter bee (Megachile perihirta) wild caught at the Wilson Ranch, north of Lakeside, Nebraska.

So, we have done just that at our office [...] we planted native prairie with nectar-bearing plants. We have tons of bees and butterflies coming in every year. It's very exciting. We have rabbits that use it, and we have foxes that use it. We have signs in there—they're very colorful and beautifully designed by our office staff—and they say [things like] “prairie in progress,” and “look close, do you see butterflies and bees?” It's full of color and flowers [...] and we really want the public to learn about this so they can do it. If you have a house with a lawn, quit pouring poison, or quit letting your parents pour poison, all over the ground! Let's not use fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, or fungicides—that's bad for everybody. During a rain [it] moves out of your yard and into rivers and streams and other people drink it. [...]

So that's the number one thing: convert your yard to be more native. If you don't have a yard, let's say you have an apartment with a balcony, you can bring in pollinating insects to nectar-bearing plants in flower pots. Just figure out what's native to your area [...] any garden center would know that.

A Narcissus blue morpho (Morpho helenor narcissus) at Selvatura Park in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

What else can you do? Recycle, and watch how you spend your money and how your parents spend their money. Every time you break out your purse or your wallet, you are saying to a retailer, “I approve of this.” So if you're buying something that's really energy-intensive, let's say a lot of red meat or a gas-guzzling vehicle, [it’s] maybe not so good, right? Maybe you need to think about your carbon footprint. [...] Your money is either making the world better or making it worse. So buying sustainably produced crops and durable goods, sustainably produced, that's a big deal. And it takes some thought. You have to research. But know it's possible 'cause we've done it!

Sybille Nkunzimana: Yeah, it's all about setting your mind to it: knowing that you have to make a change [...] and just doing it because it's important. [...] It's also amazing to see the difference that you can make, planting gardens and reintroducing native species into your front yard, for example. [...] Even at my house back in Haiti, my parents have done amazing things to our garden in a place that once saw very few birds and bugs. It's now flourishing, and every morning we wake up to the sound of birdsong and bugs chirping and it's amazing to think that you have that power in your hands.

Joel Sartore: No matter what you're interested in, there's likely already a group, or an organization, doing just that. So you can volunteer for them. [...] It could be at the local zoo, or aquarium, it could be at a pet rescue center, it could be at a food bank, it could be any number of things. It doesn't have to be environmental. [...] Just figure out what you love, and I guarantee that in your area, there are probably people that are thinking the same way. And if not, you could start it! It's really a great way to live. It's very fun and very satisfying.

Part 6

Sybille Nkunzimana: One thing that I really wanted to ask you about—I don't know if you've heard about this whole lantern fly invasion that's happening in New York City? I've heard a lot of people talking about how, if you visit New York City, and you see a lantern fly, step on it and kill it. [...] What's your opinion on encouraging people to do that?

Joel Sartore: Well, I know it sounds harsh, but I was just in Hawaii, and Hawaii is the extinction capital of the world in terms of losing their native plants and their native insects. They are losing their native tree snails, which are beautiful little gems—little bitty things that are beautifully colored—and they're losing their native birds, and have been for a long time. And it's because of invasive species. I don't know that they have lantern flies there, but they have lots of other [invasive] species. [...]

Two federally endangered O’ahu tree snails (Achatinella sowerbyana) at the Snail Extinction Prevention Program (SEPP) in Honolulu, Hawaii.

So in terms of taking care of [native] species—invasive species control makes sense. A lot of times these animals that come in, including the lantern fly, have an unfair advantage because they didn't evolve there and there are no natural predators of these animals. If we waited long enough—years and years and years and years—maybe not even in our lifetimes, eventually some other invasive predator of the lantern fly would end up there because of human movement around the globe with ships and airplanes. We're really shaking up the snowglobe and we're mixing all these species from all these different places.

But if you look at Hawaii, they are in the midst of a kind of “final extinction crisis,” in that, they're not sure how many native birds they'll be able to save, or snails, or plants, or insects. Most of the native [species] are relegated to the very tops of mountains. [...] I mean, it kind of depends on your value system, but I am really a big fan of trying to keep native species on the land. That is what I've devoted my life to.

So there's a predatory snail called the Rosy wolfsnail that's in Hawaii, and it's actually from southern Florida. And it grabs onto every snail it comes across with these big sucker things and sucks the snail out of its shell and eats it. They multiply like crazy, and they're all through the South Pacific now, and they're going to doom all the other snails to extinction that are on these islands. They are voracious predators, and they say, “when you see a Rosy wolfsnail, kill it.” Now I haven't seen one in the wild yet, but if I saw one, I probably would, because it has the potential to literally wipe out an entire colony of native tree snails, which are critically endangered now. Some only live in a lab. So it's a tough question you ask, but if that's what biologists in that area say needs to happen in order to preserve other life forms, well then maybe that's a good thing.

Sybille Nkunzimana: It's really unfortunate though, that they have to be collateral damage, because it kind of ties back to what we were saying [earlier] that we're all just trying to get by. And so it's unfortunate that we're forced to do things like that. But at the same time, I understand what you're saying, and I understand why.

Joel Sartore: David Quammen, who is a great environmental writer, wrote a short story a few years ago called “Planet of the Weeds.” And what he meant by that, as I recall, is that we are headed towards a world in which the species that we live with are “tramp” species that follow us along. Rats, cockroaches, coyotes, foxes, grackles, starlings, sparrows—these species that are really tolerant of us. But many of the other life forms that we are used to seeing from childhood could vanish because these “tramp” species have an evolutionary advantage, and they crowd out the others. I'll give you a specific example:

So there's a bird called the brown-headed cowbird, which is native to the US, [...] and they evolved hanging out with the bison herds—they are a migrant species. As the bison herds moved across the great plains, these birds would follow them, and they would eat the insects the bison kicked up. Now, the bison never stayed in any one place long enough for cowbirds to lay and incubate eggs and raise chicks. So, the cowbird devised an ingenious strategy. It's called a “nest parasitism,” meaning they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. When the mama bird gets up to go away and feed, the female cowbird [sneaks in and] lays an egg in the bird’s nest and [then] goes on with the bison herd. Or today, she just hangs out with cattle or wherever they go. They still do that. That's the only way they nest. So what happens is, the cowbird egg hatches faster and the chick is bigger [...] but the mama bird, let's say it's a robin, doesn't know that. Well, the cowbird chick hatches early and kills all the other eggs or nestlings and pushes them out of the nest. And then the mama robin, or whoever it is, feeds that cowbird chick and raises it. [...]

So what has happened is, in areas where there are very rare, beautiful warblers, for example, like the golden-cheeked warbler in Texas, the cowbirds are going to drive that species to extinction. I went to Fort Hood, Texas, which is a giant military base with lots of good habitat, and the only way to save the golden-cheeked warbler was to trap and kill the brown-headed cowbirds.

An endangered (IUCN) and federally endangered golden-cheeked warbler near Fort Hood, Texas.

So they're making a choice because they've got these beautiful warblers that are critically endangered—they're federally listed. They are golden, and they have a beautiful song, and they have a basic right to exist too. Well, the cowbirds, which are super aggressive and have this amazing nesting strategy that no longer applies in a day when they don't migrate along with the bison, they have to go if we want [the warblers]. We now run the entire earth. We have to choose what kind of an earth we want. [...]

I believe that we [should] make good, informed decisions and try to make the best choices we can to reign things in and keep things as good as we can for as long as we can. [...] But those decisions are based on science, they're based on intelligence, they're based on reading and believing in the experts. So that's where I come down on that.

Joel Sartore with frill necked lizard, Chlamydosaurus kingii, at a high school in Victoria, Australia, 2017. Photo by Douglas Gimesy.