He’s already logged thousands of hours and tens of thousands of miles to photograph thousands of species, and yet he’s far from finished.
“We are a little more than halfway done after 12 years with just over 7,500 species (photographed). Because we’ll now have to travel farther and wider to get the remaining species (an estimated 5,000 more), it’ll take us another 15 years to complete. So, if I had to guess, I’d say another 30 countries or so should do it.”
When working in the wild, things can get hairy.
“Now that I’m working mainly at zoos, the work has fewer unpleasant surprises. During my 16 years on assignment in the field for National Geographic magazine, however, I had a few close calls with critters. But it’s mostly the little things I’m most wary of.”
For example, there are diseases carried by insects like the Marburg virus.
“I was quarantined three weeks for that one and didn’t get it.”
Then there’s a flesh-eating parasite called mucocutaneous leishmaniasis.
“I did get that one and the treatment is no fun at all.”
Things are less creepy-crawly today,
“These days, working in controlled environments. most of these shoots go extremely smoothly because the animals have been around people all their lives,” he said. “But sometimes the critters do ‘have their way’ with my backgrounds and sets.
“Having enough time to get to everything is the biggest challenge, but definitely doable. Thankfully, the project isn’t political and so we’re welcomed pretty much everywhere we go.”
The work holds deep personal meaning for him.
“Most animals I photograph have a real impact on me. They’re all like children to me because I’m the only voice most will ever have. It’s giving a voice to the voiceless. For many of these species, especially the small ones that live in the soil or in little streams or high up in the treetops, this will be their only chance to be heard before they go extinct. That’s a great honor, and a great responsibility, and why I’m devoting my life to this.
“If I had to choose one right now though, I suppose it would be Nabire, one of the last northern white rhinos at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. She was the sweetest and passed away less than two weeks after our visit of complications brought on by old age. Now the world just has three left, all in a single pen in Kenya.”
The world’s last male northern white rhino, age 45, died at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on March 19.
Sartore, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism graduate, is now working exclusively on the Photo Ark. He’s the project’s lone photographer though it’s evolved into a family and legacy adventure.
“My oldest child, Cole, goes with me to assist on most foreign shoots and has promised to carry out the work should I not be able to complete it in my lifetime,” Sartore said.
Photo Ark strives to make a difference. One way is by raising money to save species from extinction. “In the bigger picture,” Sartore said, “we raise public awareness to the extinction crisis.” The message gets out via projections on touchstone buildings (St. Peter’s Basilica, the Empire State Building), publication in NG magazine and posts on NG social media. “The images get people to care about some of the least known animals on the planet while there’s still time to save them.”
The PBS documentary series, Rare: Portraits of the Photo Ark, provided more exposure.
Nat Geo Photo Ark EDGE Fellowship is a new initiative aimed at supporting future conservation leaders working on the planet’s most unique and endangered species. In partnership with the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE of Existence program, the fellowship will support funding and highlight creatures in the Photo Ark that historically receive little or no conservation attention.
Sartore doesn’t mince words when describing what’s at stake with endangered biodiversity and the consequences of inaction.
“We’re looking at a massive extinction event if we don’t control human behavior in a way that spares some of the largest rain forests, prairies, coastal marshes, coral reefs, et cetera. But if we can raise public awareness, and get people to care, it’s my hope there will be far fewer extinctions than predicted. It is not too late to turn this around.
“At its heart, the Photo Ark is meant to be more than just a huge archive; it’s meant to inspire the public to care about the future of all life on Earth, including our own. After all, when we save other species, we’re actually saving ourselves.