April 18, 2019 by
Photography by Joel Sartore and Bill Sitzmann

He escaped a charging musk ox, survived a flesh-eating parasite, and stared down the bloody muzzle of a hungry polar bear trying to bust into his truck.

Adventure is part of the job description for Joel Sartore, a Ralston-born photographer with National Geographic for nearly 30 years. One of the hardest parts of the job, however, has been the extended time away from family—his wife and three kids back home in Lincoln.

Sartore used to spend three-quarters of his year on the road, often overseas or in inaccessible locales. The pressure of family separation reached a breaking point during an eight-week assignment to Alaska’s North Slope in 2004. He was shooting a subsistence hunt of bowhead whales by indigenous Alaskan villagers. Rain and wind battered his ramshackle motel, and he was stuck waiting for the next photo opportunity.

“I really don’t like this lifestyle,” Sartore remembers his wife, Kathy, saying during a long-distance phone call. “I’m not telling you that you have to stop, but I’m basically a single mom.” His heart sank. He had months invested in seeking support from editors (for a special photography blimp) and obtaining permission from local villagers. Everything was in place, except the weather.

“I just need to get through this shoot,” he told her. “I’ve got $5,000 sitting in the helium for the blimp. I’ve probably spent about $20,000 total in airfare and getting the blimp and operator up here. I’ve got all this money wrapped up in the shot, and I just need to stick with it. The weather is bad, and when the weather breaks, [the villagers will] go out and get a whale, and then I can get the shot.”

Her response cut like a knife: “You’ve always got great excuses, Joel.”  So, he cut the trip short by a week and a half. “At that point, I just came home, and I’m glad that I did,” he says. “It wasn’t worth endangering our marriage.”

The villagers had one clear day to hunt whales before his departure. The blimp went out on a long cable to document the harvest. “It was bouncing around in the wind really bad,” he says. “We got one roll of film. I thought it was all going to be blurry because it was kind of dark.” But there were one or two sharp frames. Good enough. The whale image ran in National Geographic’s May 2006 issue with his other photos from the North Slope.

After his return to Nebraska, the Sartore family faced a crisis far worse than the habitual missing of his kids’ birthday parties. Kathy was sick. “She was diagnosed with breast cancer around Thanksgiving,” he says. “So, it’s good that I did get home, and then I stayed home.”

His wife’s cancer set in motion the next installment of his career.

Building the Photo Ark

Sartore took a year-long sabbatical to care for Kathy and their three kids—Spencer, Ellen, and Cole. During that time, he reflected on his 30 stories for National Geographic. “A couple of them moved the needle in terms of conservation, but most of them did not,” he says.

His wife’s cancer forced him to consider his own mortality. How could his work become more enduring than the distribution cycle of a monthly magazine?

“That year at home helped me to think about the shortness of life, and helped me to think about what I should do with the second half of my career,” he says. “I was 42 years old, and it made me wonder about what I could do to make a real and lasting difference in terms of saving the Earth.”

Two artists came to mind as inspiration: the naturalist painter John James Audubon and photographer Edward S. Curtis.

“I thought about Audubon’s work,” Sartore says. “He gave everything he had to document the birds and mammals of North America, and his work is still around today, even though he painted in the early 1800s.” Some of the animals that Audubon documented are now extinct. Meanwhile, the paintings continue to be admired.

“Then, I thought about the work of Edward S. Curtis, who spent years documenting nearly 90 Native American tribes around the American West,” he says. “Again, he did it for so long. He specialized and concentrated on this one project, so his work is still around today. I thought, ‘OK, that would work.’”

His ambition became the documentation of every species of captive animal, “everything from elephants all the way down to ants, termites, grasshoppers, toads, and sparrows,” with each living specimen positioned in front of a black or white backdrop in a studio-style setup.

“There weren’t really any good pictures of a lot of these species, especially the small critters,” Sartore says. “They’re usually photographed poorly or not at all, or their skins are photographed as part of a museum collection by a biologist studying them. It was something different that I could do, something which wouldn’t keep me away so much.”

Fast-forward to the present. His wife beat cancer, and the Photo Ark is steadily growing. “I’m about 12 years into it, and 9,500 species so far,” he says. “We think that there are probably 14,000-15,000 captive species total worldwide, and there are probably 12,000 or so at accredited zoos. So, we are more than halfway done.”

Sartore estimates that the Photo Ark project has taken him to 50 countries and 400 zoos, aquariums, and animal rescue centers. He hopes to hit the 10,000-species mark by 2020, but his pace is beginning to slow.

“We’re going to have to go farther to get fewer species,” he says, giving credit to Nebraska zoos for helping jumpstart the project.

Building the photo ark

Joel Sartore in his Lincoln studio (photo by Bill Sitzmann)

Nebraska Zoos, Global Reach

The idea for the Photo Ark evolved gradually. He began spending more time at Lincoln Children’s Zoo and then Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. Always with a camera, he did what came naturally. He took photographs.

“Lincoln was instrumental in launching the Photo Ark, and the Omaha zoo was really instrumental in building the number [of photos] and also in introducing me to other zoos,” he says.

Jessi Krebs, the curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Omaha zoo, first worked with Sartore around 2009. “It didn’t take long to realize that what he was doing, it was going to be something special,” Krebs says.

Part of what makes Sartore’s approach unique—along with the black or white backdrop isolating the animals’ unique features—is the great care that the photographer takes in making the photography process easy, logistically, for both animals and zoo staff.

“When you work with photographers, they usually have something really specific in mind,” the zookeeper says. “So, we are often requested to position the animal in a ‘perfect way’ to make the animal perform. Joel never makes the animal perform. It’s never artificial, not stressful.”

Krebs has been proud to help. Several of Sartore’s prints hang in his Omaha office. “Now, this project is so big and he’s photographed so much that he doesn’t come in much,” Krebs says. “But every two months, Joel checks in to see if there are any new animals.”

From the dozens—maybe hundreds—of Omaha zoo animals that the photographer captured, many appeared in magazines and books for National Geographic; others covered landmarks around the world in epic proportions. “For example, the lion that was at the Omaha zoo called Mr. Big, he was projected onto the side of the Vatican, and the pope was sitting right there watching,” Sartore says. “We’ve also had Omaha animals appear on the Empire State Building and the United Nations building in New York.”

Malayan Tiger (©Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Malayan tiger at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo (©Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

The images are not only great publicity for Nebraska zoos; they help make conservation meaningful to viewers around the world.

“Lots of people can take very nice pictures of animals; Joel has the ability to snap the picture and capture much more because of the black or white backdrop and his incredible eye and timing,” says Dennis Pate, president and CEO of the Omaha zoo. “The viewer really has only the animal to focus on, including its expression, posture, mood, eye gaze, and more.”

Some animals in the Photo Ark have gone extinct since being photographed, or they are functionally extinct already.

“One is the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog, it went extinct due to the chytrid fungus sweeping the world. That was the first one that were pretty sure has since gone extinct,” Sartore says, adding that he has also photographed others that are down to just a few specimens: a species of rabbit from eastern Washington State, several insect species, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle, and the northern white rhino.

“These are animals right on the cusp of extinction,” he says. “Because some of them are long-lived, they’ll be here a while yet, but they are functionally extinct. Unfortunately, I meet an animal or two every year now that is either going to go away imminently or will someday. We aren’t doing this project to create the world’s greatest obituary for animals; it is to get people to pay attention, to stop and look these animals in the eyes and realize there is beauty there and real value. And they are all worth saving.”

The Route to National Geographic

Sartore’s path to conservation began as a child growing up in suburban Ralston. The Omaha zoo was his local zoo, and he aspired to be a zookeeper when he grew up. His parents loved the outdoors, and they instilled this passion in him. He played in the local creek, watched wildlife, and became an Eagle Scout before graduating from Ralston High School in 1980.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he bounced between fields of study—from beekeeping to fine art—before settling on journalism. His first photography portfolio was an embarrassment, he says. But he kept at it.

“I applied to The Daily Nebraskan five times before I got hired, and at any time, any one of these people who I was talking to and trying to learn from, they could have put out the fire,” Sartore says. “They could have poured cold water all over me and told me I was no good. But they were all kind to me.”

By the time he graduated in 1985, his portfolio had improved significantly (which he credits to the critical mentorship of professors George Tuck, Bud Pagel, and Dick Streckfuss). That same year, he and Kathy moved to Kansas for his job at the Wichita Eagle, where he began as a general assignment photographer and eventually took the helm of the newspaper’s photo department. A few years in, freelance general assignment photo work began trickling in from National Geographic.

His first major assignment from National Geographic came in 1990. It was a story about the American Gulf Coast. The project was going to require 27 weeks in the field, with photo subjects ranging from Florida mansions and alligator farms to Louisiana’s Mardi Gras and pelicans flying over barrier islands.

His career faced a fork in the road. “I asked for a leave of absence,” Sartore says, “and they said, ‘Well, we need somebody to run your department. You have to choose.’” Sartore chose National Geographic.

“It was kind of risky quitting my nice job at the Eagle, but it worked out,” he says. His wife welcomed their move back to Lincoln, where her family lived. Meanwhile, he embarked on a series of adventures at the pinnacle of conservation-focused journalism.

The intrepid Nebraskan took his shoes off to walk along the beach of Galveston, Texas. What he saw shocked him: his feet turned black from spilled oil that washed to shore; there was a dead dolphin wrapped in fishnet; garbage bags and medical waste (syringes) littered the sand. It was an epiphany for him—he realized that he wanted to make conservation his life’s mission.

Near Death Experiences

Before the Gulf Coast assignment was done, he also experienced his first near-death reporting mishap. While shooting pelicans from a floatplane flying over a Louisiana marsh, he was focused on the birds as he called out the movement of the flock. Suddenly, the floatplane’s pilot let out a scream. They landed on the water not long after, and the pilot was visibly shaken as he spoke.

“He said, ‘We almost died back there, Joel. We were right on the verge of a high-speed stall at low altitude,” Sartore says. “I asked him what a high-speed stall was, and he explained that it was when the airplane became unstable, and we would have nosed right into the earth, but he pulled us out at the last second. I told him, ‘We’re just trying to get some pictures of pelicans flying, let’s not do that anymore.’”

But it wasn’t the photographer’s last brush with danger in pursuit of pictures. He had many others over the years.

Australian freshwater crocodile (©Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Australian freshwater crocodile at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo (©Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Once, he went hiking solo to photograph seabirds on the Pribilof Islands (part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge). He leaned over a sheer cliff to document the nests of some kittiwakes and murres. The coastline was several hundred feet below. Then, the ground began collapsing beneath him.

“I caught myself by one arm, grabbing a big tuft of grass, and I was able to get back on top of the cliff and not fall to my death,” Sartore says. “But the light was really, really good. So, while I was hanging there by my left arm, I went and took a couple of pictures with my right arm before I climbed over. I figured, ‘Well, I’m already here.’ But that was really stupid, and that’s one of the closest times I’ve ever come to getting killed.”

For another assignment, he was sitting in a rusty Chevy van that refused to start beside a pile of bones and meat from bowhead whales in Kaktovik, Alaska. A polar bear approached and decided to try peeling open the pickup’s door to feast on the corn-fed photographer inside.

“He was banging on the side windows, trying to pry the doors open, and standing up banging on the windshield,” Sartore says. “Fortunately, it was a young bear that didn’t weigh enough yet to break the glass. Otherwise, he would have been able to pop the windshield open. But he didn’t quite have the mass necessary. We couldn’t get the vehicle started, and we didn’t have a firearm. It was a little tense there for a while.”

And what wildlife photographer hasn’t been chased by a dangerous large animal? Sartore’s list includes “lions, mountain gorillas, elephants, musk oxen, grizzly bears. You know, the usual suspects.” Each incident has been a learning experience, and he takes seriously his obligation to stay on the safe side of the line that separates “getting a good picture” from “irritating an animal.”

“The first thing that goes through your head is, ‘I am a moron. Why have I disturbed this animal so much that it feels the need to charge me?’ Because I’m in their house. Getting charged by an elephant, or a grizzly bear, or a musk ox, you are literally in their home and you’ve done something to anger them.”

New technology—camera traps triggered by infrared beams or utilizing drones—help to avoid some of the dangerous scenarios he experienced while reducing stress to wildlife. But as a whole, he says, “The simple act of driving a car, and the possibility of getting in a wreck at high speed on I-80, is often more dangerous than what I do for a living.”

Viruses and insect-born diseases are another story.

“People in my line of work don’t often get eaten by polar bears or attacked by jaguars,” he says. “What happens is: You get bitten by an insect that is carrying malaria or dengue fever, or come in contact with bats carrying the Marburg virus, and then that threatens your life. That’s not as sexy as being attacked by a large animal, but I’ve never been physically assaulted by a bear or a lion. I have been threatened by illnesses carried by insects, though.”

Infected by Creepy Crawlies

A diary he kept from a trip to the Bolivian rainforest of Madidi National Park (published in the March 2000 issue of National Geographic) showcases the brutally unglamorous side of fieldwork: lying down in his own urine while waiting to capture butterflies; pulling botfly maggots out of his hand and backside; waiting for days on a platform to photograph jaguars and peccaries with team members taking turns to relieve themselves in a bucket to avoid spooking animals that seldom showed up.

He went home with some pretty bad wild pig photos. Meanwhile, he also brought with him an unwelcome souvenir—the flesh-eating, parasitic disease leishmaniasis, which he contracted from a sandfly bite while marooned on the platform in the rainforest.

“I came out of the jungle with a lot of different bug bites, but this one on my lower right calf, it just kept getting bigger and wouldn’t heal up,” Sartore says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention diagnosed the ailment. The treatment for leishmaniasis was a once-per-day, hour-long IV of antimony (a heavy metal) straight to his heart through a line in his arm because the drug is corrosive to veins. “Antimony breaks up the parasite’s life cycle,” he says. “I supposedly could still have the parasite, but it’s not able to breed in me, and I was actually treated twice for it, one year apart.”

Not long after recovering, he was back in South America for a story in the Brazilian Amazon. He was with indigenous hunter-gatherers, and he noticed they all seemed to have the same healed leg wounds resembling his leishmaniasis scar. “I asked them, ‘You don’t have the money to take a boat to town to sell your fruits at the market. How do you afford the $20,000 antimony treatment?’” Sartore says. “And the guy goes, ‘Well, we have a healing bush here. We scrape the bark of that bush, and we boil it. The oil comes out, and we put a couple drops of that hot oil in the wound. It heals right up.’”

The lesson from indigenous Amazonian healing is a reminder of the real value that nature carries for mankind. “It teaches you that you really don’t want to cut down all the rainforests; that’s our medicine cabinet right there,” he says. “Aside from helping to regulate rainfall in places as far away as Nebraska, you don’t want to knock down the rainforests for a lot of other reasons.” The potential pharmaceutical benefit is huge. Sartore brought a vial of the Amazonian oil home to Lincoln. He put it in his medicine cabinet.

His next big scare with deadly disease came from a bat-infested cave in Uganda. He was working on a story about the Albertine Rift in 2010 and wanted to photograph the local fruit bat population. He took precautions, wore a respirator mask, and hired a guide who said the cave was regularly tested by the CDC. The guide claimed it was free from the Marburg virus, a deadly form of viral hemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola (but the assurance would later prove false).

“After I was done with my work in the bat cave, I was hiking back through the woods, and the bats in the cave just left the cave to go forage at dusk,” Sartore says. “I looked up because there were thousands of bats overhead in the air, and one of them pooped directly in my eye.” Still in Uganda, he immediately called the CDC. They informed him that the cave was a known repository of the Marburg virus. Evidently, the guide either didn’t know or had lied to secure working with the photographer.

“I had 48 hours before I became contagious [if I had actually contracted the virus],” Sartore says. He jumped on the next commercial flight to the U.S. and was in quarantine at home in Lincoln within 24 hours. “I never did become infected, but they were ready for me at the local hospital in Lincoln if I showed any signs of fever.”

Doctors instructed him to take his temperature three times daily. If he ran a high temperature, he needed to go into isolation in the hospital. “I ended up taking my temperature over and over every day, and I never did get a fever,” he says. “So, after 21 days, we broke open a bottle of champagne at my house to celebrate—I didn’t die.”

Conservation Heroism

Recognized as the 2018 National Geographic Explorer of the Year, Sartore considers himself an ambassador and spokesperson for animals. But he is quick to point out that others are the real heroes of conservation. He’s just a storyteller.

African wild dogs (©Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

African wild dogs at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo (©Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

“It’s an honor to tell the stories of conservationists in the field and the animals that they are saving,” Sartore says. “These are people doing great work for no thanks—they are not doing it for fame, money, or glory. They are doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

His list of conservation heroes includes many individuals, such as Ludwig Siefert (the founder of the Uganda Carnivore Program, who has helped herdsmen transition from poisoning lions that threaten cattle to becoming tourism guides and protectors of Uganda’s big cats) and Tilo Nadler (the founder of Endangered Primate Rescue Center, who established one of Southeast Asia’s premier refuges for primates confiscated from smugglers by the Vietnamese government).

Plenty of conservation heroes live closer to home in Nebraska, too. At the top of his local list, he names Laura Stastny, the executive director of Nebraska Wildlife Rehab Inc. (“They go in the middle of the night, 24 hours a day, to save injured and orphaned wildlife”), and UNL entomologist Steve Spomer (whose research on the endangered Salt Creek tiger beetle secured important habitat protection).

“I meet heroes all the time, and that’s what really keeps me going and gives me hope,” Sartore says. “There are people doing all they can to make the world better.”

The role of zoos in making the world better for animals has been debated. From the perspective of animal rights and animal welfare, critics argue that zoos deprive creatures of their natural habitat and misuse wildlife for human entertainment, etc. “Nobody likes a bad zoo,” Sartore says; however, he believes most contemporary, mainstream zoos have adopted responsible approaches to animal management while also becoming vital institutions for conservation.

“Think about it this way, if you lost zoos, you would lose one of the last places in cities where people can go to see and hear and smell and sometimes touch animals,” he says. “When we get to the point where nature only exists as something on a smartphone screen, people are not going to step up and want to put any effort to save anything.”

But their importance goes beyond connecting mankind to our increasingly disconnected natural world. “Zoos are the true arks now,” he says. “A lot of the species that I’ve photographed for the Photo Ark would be extinct now if it weren’t for zoos providing habitat restoration and captive breeding colonies. A lot of the species that I’ve photographed—the rare ones—have been saved by zoos.”

Looking at Lincoln’s Salt Creek tiger beetle is a perfect example. The endangered insect lives only in Lincoln’s saline creeks in the wild. Responding to the beetle’s collapsing population, the Omaha zoo developed a breeding program (which the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, UNL, and Topeka Zoo in Kansas have also adopted). “[The beetles] aren’t out of the woods yet, but they are not going to go extinct overnight from one bad weather event because there is a captive colony,” Sartore says.

Sartore speaks with Omaha Magazine over the course of two days. He’s driving a rental car between Photo Ark sessions scheduled at Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge in Nevada and Big Bear Alpine Zoo in California. He is noticeably energized after meeting with teams working at each facility.

At Ash Meadows, he photographed one of the rarest fish in the world (“confined to a single pool of water and a single stream”). At Big Bear, he documented mountain species, including Humboldt’s flying squirrel, Steller’s jay, and the common raven. “Some of these animals are rare, some are common, but they all count toward the Photo Ark,” he says. “We want to show what biodiversity looks like.”

Madagascar ibis (©Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Madagascar ibis at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo (©Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

The highlight of the weekend for Sartore was an injured brush rabbit brought into Big Bear from the Los Angeles Basin. Attacked by a house cat, the rabbit was missing an eye. “We can use that picture to show how house cats need to be kept indoors because they kill wildlife like songbirds and rabbits,” he says. It is a story that’s just as relevant to Omaha as it is to L.A.

Then, he drops off his rental car and flies home in time for his youngest son’s performance in the musical Newsies at Lincoln High School.

How to be a Conservation Hero

Tips from Joel Sartore

  • Cat Control: Keep domestic cats indoors; put a large and bright collar with a bell on outdoor cats to protect birds. Domestic cats are devastating to wildlife populations.
  • Butterfly Protection: Plant a butterfly garden with native milkweed and nectar-bearing plants to sustain monarch butterflies (and other pollinators) suffering from habitat loss. The website monarchwatch.org is a great resource.
  • Carbon Footprint Reduction: Eat less meat (which is energy- and water-intensive to produce); insulate homes and use energy-efficient appliances (it saves money, too); avoid purchasing products from emission-intensive companies or products containing palm oil (which are hastening the destruction of life-sustaining rainforests). Vote with your wallet.
  • Lawn Strategies: Plant native grasses, which require less maintenance and watering (brown grass is natural during dry seasons); stop using chemical pesticides and insecticides (which ends up in streams and public water); insist that the local parks department also follow these strategies
  • Support Local: Volunteer at local zoos and nonprofits dedicated to conservation and animal welfare; become active in conservation through community service; become a zoo member. 

Joel Sartore photographed each of the animals pictured with this article at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. To learn more about the animals and their residency in Omaha, click here.

Visit nationalgeographic.org/projects/photo-ark and joelsartore.com for more information about the Photo Ark.

This article was printed in the May 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe