National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore believes photography can make a difference in helping protect the environment
By Jim Clark
It makes for a frustrating time for a photographer such as Sartore, who’s dedicated to doing what he can to reverse the trend.But Sartore prefers to turn his frustration into action. His photography highlighting Madidi National Park in Bolivia helped convince government officials to abandon a large-scale hydroelectric dam project, which would have wiped out a major portion of the park’s ecosystem. He knows about the power of photography to protect the environment.
"Photography can help in two ways," he explains. "It can expose environmental problems as nothing else can, and it can help get people to care."
For Sartore and his colleagues in the International League of Conservation Photographers (www.ilcp.com; see "Empowering Photography With Action," OP, October 2006), the stakes couldn’t be higher. "It’s folly for us to think we can destroy so many of the Earth’s plants, animals and ecosystems, and then assume it can't happen to us," Sartore explains. "All of this will come back to bite us, and I believe it will be sooner than we think. It won’t be pleasant."
Turning A Lens On Nature
To appreciate Sartore’s immersion in environmental photography, we need to look back a few years. Growing up in the heartland of America, he was continually exposed to the great outdoors. "I loved going to zoos as a kid," he remembers. "I marveled at all the exotic things in them, and I still do."
But it was the time spent in the outdoors with his father that would ignite his interest. "My father took me fishing and hunting nearly every weekend. He taught me if you lose the habitat, you lose the wildlife. It was as simple as that."
Sartore, along with his wife, two sons and daughter, continues to live in America’s heartland, and even in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, he’s witness to the disappearance of open space.
"In Lincoln, we have just three places that have any semblance of nature," he says. "We have a patch of virgin prairie out by the airport, some woodlands surrounded by housing developments and highways, and a couple of salt marshes. The marshes are home to a beetle species recently listed under the Endangered Species Act."
Sartore’s entry into the world of professional photography began during his stint as a photographer for the Wichita Eagle, where he’d soon become the newspaper’s director of photography. But it wasn’t until he began working for National Geographic in 1991 that he started focusing on nature and environmental photography.
"My first Geographic assignment was 'Eagles on the Rise’ a story about hand-rearing and releasing southern bald eagles into the American Southeast," he remembers. While this assignment sparked his interest, it would be his second Geographic project about the Gulf Coast that would help him see how endangered the environment had become.
Sartore’s interest these days centers on the plight of endangered species, something that has fascinated him since childhood. "One bird book my mother had included a chapter about extinct species, including the heath hen, great auk and Carolina parakeet," he explains. "But it was the story of the passenger pigeon, a species once numbering in the billions, that really made an impression. I couldn’t understand how we could have caused such a species to dwindle to just one single bird, Martha, and then suddenly, by 1914, it’s gone forever." He uses this story as a reminder to do what he can to prevent this from ever happening again.