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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.”
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.
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.”
See more of Joel Sartore’s work at www.joelsartore.com. Jim Clark is author ofBetween Ocean and Bay: A Natural Celebration of the Eastern Shore.