Championing The Silent: 5 Questions With Wildlife Photographer Joel Sartore

He’s on a quest to shed light on the most endangered animals, one photograph at a time

Photos: Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

Joel Sartore is building an ark.

Not a literal vessel to ride out an impending flood, but a Photo Ark of all creatures great and small.

Embodying the biblical character Noah, the captain of the ark is on a 25-year expedition to capture every species in the name of conservation. The herculean project has since taken him to 40 countries, where he has collected about  7, 500 animal portraits so far. There is an estimated 12,000 animals species in the world. 

“I’ll be done with the photo ark probably when I’m 70 years old, 15 years from now,” he quipped during a phone interview a couple of days ago.

Two Golden snub-nosed monkeys, Rhinopithecus roxellana, at Ocean Park Hong Kong

From the birds of the air to the ones that crawl on their bellies, Sartore shoots the animals against a plain black or white background to capture their raw beauty.

More notably, Singapore was where the photographer captured his milestone photo of a male proboscis monkey at the Singapore Zoo. Known for its long pendulous nose, the animal is the 6,000th species to be inducted as part of the National Geographic Photo Ark, which serves as a halfway mark of this massive endeavour.

And the visual documentarian shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

In partnership with Nanyang Technological University Singapore and Singapore Zoo,  National Geographic has brought back Sartore to our sunny island, where he’ll share more on his road of piecing together the Photo Ark.

And when he’s not indulging you with two decades-worth of stories, you’ll most probably find the wildlife photographer at our zoo to capture a primate or two.

A federally endangered Florida panther, Puma concolor coryi, at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo

The last time you were here in Singapore was in 2016. Are you looking forward to anything particular in your upcoming visit? 

I have been working with the Singapore zoo for quite a while, and I’ve got most of the species into the photo ark in my last trip. Since I’m coming back to give the National Geographic talk, I figured that will be a good time to take pictures again. I hope to get some birds, reptiles, some very rare turtles, frogs, some invertebrates and a couple of primates. Their (Singapore Zoo’s) collection is amazing. It’s always changing. So this is a good chance to get a few more shots while I’m in Singapore.

Tell us more about the progress of the photo ark, and also what is it like to photograph wildlife animals in captivity vs in the wild?

For the first 15 years or so, I photograph only animals in the wild mostly. Now, with photo ark, I photo mostly animals that are under human care. There are about 12,000 species in the world in the care of good zoos, aquariums and wildlife rehab centres, and after about 12 years of shooting so far, we have more than 7, 500 species that are all studio portraits. So, we’re about halfway done and we figured another 12 or 15 years we’ll finish it.

We couldn’t really do these portraits in the wild because it is very hard to convince a tiger to come out of the woods and lay on its back while you use light and flash. And so to get the picture, we have to do this with animals indoors or in captivity. 

In terms of the approach, it is very different. We’re using studio photography setup like you use for a fashion photoshoot. Whereas if you’re shooting in the wild, you’ll be using a combination of long lenses and camera traps, which are devices you put along animals trails in the forest, or cameras place close to a bird’s nest in the wild.

Share with us the creative process of a single animal’s studio photography session. 

What we do is we try to work with the zoo well in advance, months in advance often. We asked them which species do they have, and they send us an inventory of 600 to 700 animals. We’ll wither it down to 15 – 25 animals and then we try to learn more about them in terms of what kind of space will they need for the photo shoot: Is it a small turtle that we can place in a small shooting tent; or is it a bigger animal like a deer, where space prep is required in advance? So that’s a lot of work that goes into the shoot before I even show up with my camera. The shooting goes pretty quickly and easily.  That’s the easy part compared to all the other prep work that we have to do.

Has there been an encounter with an animal that has greatly impacted you?

There was a Northern White Lion named Nerberia. She was very old and was one of just the handful animals of Northern White Lions left. She died not long after the shoot, a week or two later, through old age. Now there are only three of those animals left, all in a pen in Kenya. Those animals are all too old to breed and so, we really think that we saw something that was going extinct right before of our very eyes.

A critically endangered African white backed vulture, Gyps africanus, at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

Could you share some tips on shooting wildlife animals?

You have to be very patient as it takes a long time to get great wildlife shots. You also have to really care a lot about nature to want to do it.  The other tip, in terms of techniques, is to shoot in night light, very early or late in the day when the light is beautiful. And also make sure that you’re viewing pictures that are interesting, not boring – think of new angles, put the camera on the ground and use a remote trigger to fire it up.  Look and study other people’s works that do good in wildlife and try to see if you can do better than that. That’s the tricky part. Most cameras, in terms of the technical side of things, expose pics well and focus automatically. The hard part is seeing well, seeing things that have been photographed before, and then putting your own spin on them and making them your own.

Ultimately, what is the goal of Photo Ark?

The goal is to really get people to wake up and realise that as these other species go to waste, so could we. The goal is to get people to care about something other than the world of celebrities, and who won the ball game or the price of petrol. The goal is to realise that we’re talking about the future of all life on earth, including us, that we need to start treating nature with some respect and start saving big plots of habitat like rainforests. It’s far more than just taking pictures of these animals, it’s to start thinking about all of our places in nature.

Building the Photo Ark with Joel Sartore will take place on 27 Jan 2018 at Mastercard Grand Theatre at Marina Bay Sands. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here

To learn more about National Geographic Photo Ark, click here