National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore believes photography can make a difference in helping protect the environment
By Jim Clark
Imagine a dream National Geographic assignment: photographing America’s Gulf Coast from the tip of Florida to Brownsville, Texas. Who could resist traveling the coastline and capturing stunning images of sunsets and coastal beaches? But what Joel Sartore saw on his second assignment for the magazine turned out to be much more than pretty pictures for a national publication. He walked along debris-strewn beaches near Galveston. Recalls Sartore, "I saw dead dolphins and garbage that included medical waste and plastic bottles from around the world."
During a boat ride along the Houston Ship Channel, he remembers the boat captain saying he hadn’t seen anything alive in the channel for the past 20 years. "But he did see it catch on fire once," says Sartore.
During this 27-week-long project, he also witnessed mosquito spraying in Florida, which killed more invertebrates than just the targeted ones, as well as nonstop development occurring along the coastline, taking a heavy toll on the native plants and animals. "The scope of this project constantly reminded me how society exerts such pressures on the landscape," laments Sartore.
To date, Sartore has completed 23 assignments for National Geographic, each with its own unique twists, turns and close calls. But despite what he has endured, he considers himself fortunate to be among a handful of contract photographers to consistently grace the covers and pages of the magazine.
These days Sartore specializes in stories that document the plight of our globally imperiled wildlands and creatures. Putting aside the logistical nightmares nature often tosses at him, Sartore strives to show the successes of conservation initiatives and the places and creatures that still need saving.
He knows he’s just one among millions who can make a difference. "There needs to be a sea change in the level of environmental interest and stewardship by a majority of the public worldwide," he explains. "Until and unless it matters to the masses, things will only get worse."
From Sartore’s perspective over the past 20 years, the pressures on Earth continue to increase, further decimating and threatening our natural heritage. "There are so many of us, and everyone leaves a footprint on the Earth," says Sartore. "To top it off, the political climate in the United States has been less than favorable for the environment, but hopefully that might be changing. It can’t happen too soon."