National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore believes photography can make a difference in helping protect the environment
By Jim Clark
In 1995, Sartore accepted a National Geographic assignment to highlight the Endangered Species Act. He then teamed up with writer Doug Chadwick to profile the National Wildlife Refuge System for the magazine. "The refuge system project was a good way to follow up on the endangered species story as it helped me understand ecosystem preservation, which is how we should be thinking in the first place," he says. "As my father told me so many years ago, lose the habitat, you lose the species."
Sartore worked again with Chadwick for the book The Company We Keep: American’s Endangered Species. "I was so excited about this book, that I was sure we’d save the world with it," Sartore says. "Of course, we didn’t save as much of the world as I had hoped. But I’m still proud of how we publicized the status of endangered species in the United States."
The book not only profiled the charismatic megafauna such as the red wolf, whooping crane and California condor, but also the lesser-known species of endangered plants such as the western prairie fringed orchid, insects such as the El Segundo blue butterfly and the endangered vernal pool tadpole shrimp.
But why should anyone care about a tadpole shrimp? For Sartore, it’s a moral obligation. "I believe it’s just wrong to cause any species to go extinct. "He also believes the loss of another species brings us closer to the brink. "It’s foolishness to think we can destroy one species or an ecosystem and not have it affect our own survival. When we save a species, we’re actually saving ourselves." Sartore believes the key to reversing the trend is to practice landscape conservation. "I think we should show good stewardship to all species, great and small," he says. "Clearly, the best course of action is to protect entire ecosystems so that no species reaches a level of endangerment."
Making A Difference
So what’s an environmental photographer to do? Is there any hope? For Sartore, there is. "We as photographers have to do our part to show the world what’s really happening to our global natural heritage. There’s not a moment to lose."
Sartore knows that more than pretty images of nature are required to make a mark. "It’s not enough, nor is it responsible journalistically, to just show cute animals in idyllic landscapes. We must show the threats to these creatures and their habitats as well. We still need to inspire others through the beautiful images, but we must step up another level and inform others about what’s really going on out there."
But in the real world, is there a demand or interest for these types of "reality" images? "The good news is that many publishers want to publish stories about environmental issues," he says. "Let’s hope nature photographers and members of the ILCP hear the call."
Sartore is quick to add, "These stories need not be from some exotic location. You don’t need to work for National Geographic or be a member of the ILCP to make an impact—there are dozens of good stories in every state."
So Sartore continues photographing amongst the wonderful and challenging world of nature, focusing on those species that remain on the brink of survival. He has completed assignments for National Geographic on such imperiled species as the grizzly bear, Attwater’s prairie chicken, gray wolf and, most recently, the ivory-billed woodpecker, a species recently rediscovered in the swampy bayous of Arkansas and a species that has captured Sartore’s imagination since childhood.
The ivory-billed woodpecker project was by far his most enjoyable. "I’ve been a huge fan of this bird since I was a kid," he says. "I got to see firsthand where the bird was sighted, with the very people who had seen it. I even got to speak with Nancy Tanner, the widow of famed ornithologist James Tanner, who wrote the definitive book on the species more than 60 years ago."
Although Sartore didn’t see the bird, he believes it exists. "Too many qualified people have seen it to deny its existence. Someone just needs to get a good picture of it."
For Sartore, the story of the ivory-bill gives optimism that society can make a difference. "All of us can make a difference. We have to try our hardest to do the most good with the time we have on Earth. We simply have to care."