Joel Sartore Curated
Photographer, National Geographic
CURATED BY :
You photograph your 5,000th species in the course of the film, a Persian leopard in Budapest. Are all 5,000 species endangered?
We photograph all species, great and small, rare or common. The goal is to show what biodiversity looks like at this point in time. We’re nearing 8,000 species photographed now, by the way.
How do you go about finding the endangered species?
I approach the zoos, aquariums, wildlife rehab centers and private breeders wherever I’m going to speak. I also target specific places housing species that I’ve been hoping to get.
How does it feel to have the Photo Ark project documented in film? Will it help raise the profile of these endangered species even further?
Yes, the more coverage the better. This is a public awareness campaign that will span many decades. We need to make folks aware that all species need our empathy and our support. And they need habitat to survive as well. That’s critical. We must leave some areas of the Earth alone so that species can thrive in those places. The best part is that when we save other species, we’re actually saving ourselves as well. We need bees and other pollinating insects to bring us fruits and vegetables. We need healthy, intact rainforests to regulate rainfall around the planet, the moisture we need to grow our crops. These ecological functions are crucial to human survival. The sooner all of us realize that, the sooner we can start to save nature, and ourselves in the process.
Have you seen any impacts from your photography?
The Florida grasshopper sparrow got extra protection (extra funding) from the federal government after Photo Ark coverage turned into an Audubon magazine cover story. But overall the goal is to raise public awareness, get people to realize that there are many other amazing species that we share the planet with and that the future of life on Earth really is in our hands now.
What are your thoughts on using Photoshop to alter the photographs?
Since the name of the game is speed, we put all these animals on black-and-white backgrounds, but if they poop or they drag dirt in, we'll clean that up in Photoshop because we don't want to have to grab the duck, remove him from the tent, clean the tent, put him back in. I mean ducks go to the bathroom every 60 seconds, so we just want to put him in there and get the best portrait we can and we will remove any extra things in Photoshop after the shoot ... with some of the big animals, some of the flighty animals (like gazelles, zebras, giraffes), we don't even use lights, because it could scare them.
Your body of work is such a diverse variety of subjects. Is there any genre or type of photography that gets you more excited than others?
Yes, photos that expose environmental issues/problems and eventually lead people to do something about them.
How did growing up in a small town on the Nebraska plains enable you to connect with these places and people so effectively?
We all have to be nice to each other out here because the spaces and weather can be overwhelming. If you help others, you'll get help when you need it as well.
What has been your most memorable assignment for National Geographic Magazine and why?
Of my nearly 30 stories in NGM, the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker was one of my all-time favorites. This was a story of hope--of a hardwood swamp landscape that had been preserved over the decades by several different groups that worked well together. It's as if the bird was a payoff for their good deeds. It was sure nice to focus on the positive for a change.
Looking back on an experience like Madidi, do you have positive feelings or pride or was the whole thing just a utter nightmare?
I'm proud of the story, and even though it was very tough both mentally and physically, I wouldn't trade that experience for the world. I made some lifelong friends, helped save the park from a dam, and learned how good we have it in the United States. So, I'm very proud of the fact that I took that assignment, and that it was a success.
After working with National Geographic for so long, what attributes or qualities do you think their photo editors look for in the images they select?
I think they're looking for images that have a timeless quality yet still tell a story well. We work many months ahead on these stories, so images that combine fine art with journalism seem to be the ones that last and matter most. Of course, everyone loves surprising images as well, but those are hard to come by.
In your latest book, Rare, you photograph endangered animals all over the United States. What did you learn during this project and what do you hope others will gain from reading it?
I learned that there is less time than we thought for many of the species in the book. If they don't get enough habitat set aside, and have people pay attention to them in the way of funding and management, they will leave us. The good news is that the majority of the species in the book can be saved. We just have to care enough, then do the right thing.
Why should people care about these virtually unknown species that are on the brink of extinction?
Well, there are huge areas of China and Brazil that have lost their pollinating insects, including flies and beetles, so that now humans have to pollinate fruits and vegetables by hand using little dishes of pollen and paintbrushes. If that doesn't make you nervous, what will? Besides, it is folly to think that we can destroy one species and ecosystem after another and not have it affect humanity. When we save species, we're actually saving ourselves. We're intricately tied to healthy, functioning ecosystems. But at a time when most folks have no idea how their food is produced, this is all a tough sell. Here are a few points I made in my local newspaper about a critically endangered insect in my own county, the Salt Creek tiger beetle. 1) Save species and habitat to help save ourselves. To think that humans are not tied in tightly to the natural world is pure folly. In fact, we're totally dependent on healthy, functioning ecosystems for our very survival, from the air we breathe to the food we eat to the water we drink. Notice that the frogs and bird species are thinning out where you live? These things are living monitors of the health of the earth. To think that we can escape their fate over the long haul is not realistic, to say the least. 2) We're killing off the ark. All plants and animals, even the Salt Creek tiger beetle, are God's creatures. Who are we to purposely kill off any of these creations? The Salt Creek tiger beetle is our local example of the massive wave of extinction now going on around the globe, all due to human activity and overpopulation. 3) Save it for education. Ever go on a field trip to a pond or a marsh in grade school or high school? Remember the thrill at seeing the wildlife there, from frogs and tadpoles to dragonflies to the teeming life found in a single drop of water when viewed under a microscope? 4) It's about more than just a beetle. Saving the saline wetlands (or any ecosystem) benefits thousands of other animals, such as migrating ducks, geese, and shorebirds that use such critical habitat at various times of the year. 5) Small things lead to bigger ones. If people care enough to save something as seemingly trivial as a salt marsh and as tiny as a beetle, then they'll surely care about the environmentally big things, like the destruction of 'The Lungs of the World', the Amazon rainforest. Cutting down rainforests leads to global warming. They'll also think more about sustainable living, such as the kinds and amounts of chemicals they use on their lawns and pour down their drains, which end up being consumed by people downstream from their town. 6) As a famous biologist once noted, it is the last word in ignorance when a person asks 'what good is it?' We are not smart enough as a species to understand what parts are worth saving and what are not. Remember the story about a good tinker not throwing away parts until he fully understands what each does? We're not even close to knowing how everything works, whether it's the prairies, rainforest, oceans, the Arctic or even the last of the salt marshes in northern Lancaster County, Nebraska. 7) Let's save endangered species simply because we care. The beetle is just one small part of the picture. The big issue is whether or not all of us care enough to preserve what we have left. Do we want to save species and habitats, or do we want to simply pave over and sterilize as much as we can in the name of economics? If you truly care about the environment, the last islands of natural habitat remaining are all precious, whether it's a salt marsh, a virgin prairie, or a century-old cottonwood tree. To good stewards of the Earth, all are equally worth saving.
What power does photojournalism have?
Photojournalism has the real power to change the world. A lot of people need our voice. They need our help to get their message out.
When did you start giving talks to the public? What motivated you to do so?
I’ve been speaking since the moment I felt I had something to say, first when I worked for a newspaper in Kansas, and certainly more since starting in with National Geographic Magazine some 25 years ago. The fees I get now pay for the Photo Ark, my 20-year project to document the world’s species as studio portraits.
Scientists are more used to tell stories with figures and data analysis. How can we tell a story via photography?
If you want to inspire and engage the public, you need to keep it simple and to the point. Our collective attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. We need to have good things to say in a very succinct manner or our audience will be lost. Have a beginning, middle and end, Move people’s emotions. And above all, keep it interesting. You’ll have 30 seconds max to either hold your viewer or lose them.
What was the evolution of Photo Ark?
My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly nine years ago. During her recovery, on the days she was feeling better, I went to the Lincoln [Nebraska] Children’s Zoo, very near my home, and started to do photos of small animals using black and white backgrounds and studio lighting. I just needed to shoot something, anything, as I’d never been “grounded” or made to stay home in all the years since starting to work for [National Geographic magazine]. The first couple species I did were a naked mole rat and a pair of poison dart frogs.
Initially, the Photo Ark project was a small initiative. How did it expand into such a big project?
I found that I liked the way the backgrounds gave all species equal weight and importance. Plus, I could look each creature directly in the eye, which was engaging. In time I found myself going to the zoos in Omaha, Kansas City, and Sioux Falls to do more and more portraits. The project has grown ever since. Zoos take care of them and breed them and save them. Zoos are the keepers of the kingdom from now on. It’s important for people to support zoos financially and find out how they can volunteer their time and help zoos preserve what we have left of nature.
What is the goal of Photo Ark?
The goal of all this is to simply get the public to finally wake up and pay attention. Half of all species could go extinct by the turn of the next century if we don’t stop tearing up the planet. This will be a lose-lose situation for all of us. The species we share the Earth with are not only amazing, but very beneficial to humans. Indeed, they hold the key to our very survival. We need pollinating insects to produce fruit and vegetables. We need healthy forests to regulate our climate. So when we save other species, we’re actually saving ourselves. But we won’t care, and certainly won’t be moved to save anything, if we don’t know these species exist, and that many are in trouble. That’s where these photos come in.
How does Photo Ark inform the assignments you take on in the wild?
I try to select assignments where I can do Photo Ark shoots as well. When I covered the koala crisis in Australia, I spent a lot of time working with zoos and wildlife rehab facilities in the area as well. By combining both, I’m able to get studio shots of the animal and then go an extra step and show what is happening to the animal in the wild, whether it’s habitat loss, disease, or poaching.
Any memorable project of yours?
I’ve been doing nonstop Photo Ark shoots since I finished the zoos story, Building the Ark in National Geographic magazine's October 2013 issue. I was in Australia, then Kansas, and then Grand Rapids.
What has been the greatest challenge or disappointment you have faced with this project?
That people still care more about the price at the pump and what’s on TV instead of waking up and realizing that we’re on the cusp of the biggest extinction since the dinosaurs vanished. There’s no time to lose for this project to catch fire.
What has been your greatest accomplishment with Photo Ark?
It’s the opportunity to tell the story of each and every species that I photograph. For many, this will be the only national attention they’ll ever get before they no longer exist, either in captivity or in the wild.
How can people who would like to help get involved with Photo Ark?
People can visit photoark.com to learn more and donate to the project. They can also write to us at [email protected] We’ve got no shortage of ideas.
What sparked your passion for animals?
I’d always cared about natural history because my parents cared about it. My mother bought me a Time Life book called The Birds, and in it was a picture of Martha the very last passenger pigeon. She died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.
How are you inspiring people to take action and support Photo Ark?
This is a bit of a race now because half of all species could be gone by 2100. That would hurt humanity in a very real way. We need insects like bees and even flies as pollinators to bring us fruits and vegetables. We need healthy rain forests to help regulate our climate and to keep rainfall coming to the areas where we grow crops. We need healthy oceans to provide us with food and regulate our climate as well. Hopefully each species in the Photo Ark is a new opportunity to hook people and get them into the tent of conservation before it’s too late. It’s vital people pay attention and realize what amazing creatures we share the planet with. If not, the Ark will be more for future generations than us, because we didn’t do a very good job of saving what we had. Imagine being at sea on a lifeboat that’s on fire. Can we get the public to understand that? That when we save other species, we’re actually saving ourselves?
Why do you think that zoos and aquariums are critically important to save the endangered species?
Zoos and aquariums are the true arks today, and often have the only breeding populations of many animals that are virtually extinct in the wild. Also, for many people that live in cities, zoos are often the only place people can actually see live animals. It’s not the same if you’re watching them on TV or on the web. You’ve got to hear an animal, see it, smell it. Having an animal look you in the eye, now that reaches people and changes them. In a developed nation where a lot of us make our living on computers, places where you can see birds, mammals, frogs, and fish are a critical reminder that we’re all in this together, and that we’re all tied into the natural world. Zoos and aquariums are vital when it comes to education, and we need them if we’re going to try and get people to care, save nature, restore habitat, and reestablish animals in the wild. The world’s zoos fund more restoration work than you can imagine.
Is there anything the people can do to help save the endangered species?
Folks can realize that they don’t have to save the whole world, just their own backyard. Drive less. Eat more locally produced fruits and vegetables. Better insulate your home. Reduce, reuse and recycle the things you buy. Figure out what you’re most passionate about, and do something to make the world a better place. Become a member of your local zoo or aquarium and visit often. That’s a great, fun place to start, especially if you have kids.
You’ve photographed many animals. What are some of the most memorable?
When people ask me what my favorite is, I tend to tell them it’s the next one. I’m always excited about what that will be, and I love having the chance to meet so many animals that need their story told in the worst way. For example, I just came back from Madagascar and saw the only captive Decken's sifakas at a zoo there. They look like they’re wearing white wool coats, really interesting looking, and the world hasn’t really heard much about them. It’s an honor to tell their story.
What would you like to do after you finish photographing all of the animals for Photo Ark?
Rest in peace [laughs]. I’ll have nothing left when I’m done some 15 years from now. My neck, back, and knees will be shot, since I’m often crawling around on the ground when I’m working. Oh, and I’d like to go fishing. Catch and release only, of course.
Share with us the creative process of a single animal’s studio photography session.
What we do is we try to work with the zoo well in advance, months in advance often. We asked them which species do they have, and they send us an inventory of 600 to 700 animals. We’ll wither it down to 15 – 25 animals and then we try to learn more about them in terms of what kind of space will they need for the photo shoot: Is it a small turtle that we can place in a small shooting tent; or is it a bigger animal like a deer, where space prep is required in advance? So that’s a lot of work that goes into the shoot before I even show up with my camera. The shooting goes pretty quickly and easily. That’s the easy part compared to all the other prep work that we have to do.
Has there been an encounter with an animal that has greatly impacted you?
There was a Northern White Lion named Nerberia. She was very old and was one of just the handful animals of Northern White Lions left. She died not long after the shoot, a week or two later, through old age. Now there are only three of those animals left, all in a pen in Kenya. Those animals are all too old to breed and so, we really think that we saw something that was going extinct right before of our very eyes.
What wildlife photography tips would you give?
You have to be very patient as it takes a long time to get great wildlife shots. You also have to really care a lot about nature to want to do it. The other tip, in terms of techniques, is to shoot in night light, very early or late in the day when the light is beautiful. And also make sure that you’re viewing pictures that are interesting, not boring – think of new angles, put the camera on the ground and use a remote trigger to fire it up. Look and study other people’s works that do good in wildlife and try to see if you can do better than that. That’s the tricky part. Most cameras, in terms of the technical side of things, expose pics well and focus automatically. The hard part is seeing well, seeing things that have been photographed before, and then putting your own spin on them and making them your own.
What would you comment on the progress of Photo Ark? What is the difference between photographing wildlife in captivity and in the wild?
For the first 15 years or so, I photograph only animals in the wild mostly. Now, with photo ark, I photo mostly animals that are under human care. There are about 12,000 species in the world in the care of good zoos, aquariums and wildlife rehab centres, and after about 12 years of shooting so far, we have more than 7, 500 species that are all studio portraits. So, we’re about halfway done and we figured another 12 or 15 years we’ll finish it. We couldn’t really do these portraits in the wild because it is very hard to convince a tiger to come out of the woods and lay on its back while you use light and flash. And so to get the picture, we have to do this with animals indoors or in captivity. In terms of the approach, it is very different. We’re using studio photography setup like you use for a fashion photoshoot. Whereas if you’re shooting in the wild, you’ll be using a combination of long lenses and camera traps, which are devices you put along animals trails in the forest, or cameras place close to a bird’s nest in the wild.
Why did you decide to use either black or white backgrounds?
There are no distractions in these pictures. It's just the animal and you. And that animal's often looking you in the eye.
What makes a great picture?
Emotion. That's what you look for in any in any great photograph. A moment. We're looking for the eyes. Humans are we're primates, and we're really really responsive to eyes. We're all about eye contact.
What makes you think you can save an animal species with a photo?
We can reach more people now than ever. Because we can post to "National Geographic," Instagram and Facebook and reach over 100 million people, and do it again and again and again.
How can one become a National Geographic photographer?
I’m asked this question more often than any other. The short reply is “by being very persistent.” And though concise, it’s definitely true. Here are the steps I took: I got into photography late in high school after borrowing an old Olympus camera from a friend’s father. I attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and—after changing majors a couple of times and taking classes in everything from astronomy to beekeeping—majored in photojournalism. I worked at the campus paper and took pictures constantly. My first photo job was for a newspaper in Wichita, Kansas, for six years, first as a photographer, then as their director of photography. About halfway through that time, I met James Stanfield, one of the legends of photography at National Geographic. He graciously looked at my work and gave me a recommendation to send my portfolio to the Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. For the next two years, I sent in clips of my best work from the newspaper, usually in three-month intervals. That eventually led to a one-day assignment, followed a few months later by a nine-day assignment, and so on. I worked like crazy on those assignments—and each one since—and did everything I could do make sure the photos were stellar. Being very “Type A” and borderline obsessive helped me a great deal in getting the Geographic to notice me. It’s almost a requirement if you want to shoot for them. As important as dogged persistence is, you have to learn to rein it in when appropriate. There’s a fine line between being persistent and being a pain. If you come across as the latter, you’ll annoy those whose attention you seek, and your chances of getting anywhere in life are diminished. I have to work to calm myself down after I get back from an assignment, or I would drive my family crazy. Regarding education: many of the photographers at National Geographic learned photography on their own, and come from backgrounds far removed from journalism. People like Tim Laman, Mark Moffett and Christian Ziegler have strong backgrounds in science, which makes them excellent natural history shooters. Others bring special skills to the table in addition to photography, like Stephen Alvarez's expertise on caves, or Paul Niclen's skills as a diver. To get into National Geographic, you have to offer them something they don’t already have access to—which is a tall order. It’s not enough just to be a great photographer. You have to be a great photographer and be able to dive under sea ice, spend days in tree stands in the tropics, speak fluent Russian and know Moscow like the back of your hand, or be an absolute genius at lighting impossible situations.
Has there ever been a situation where you were close to getting killed on an assignment?
How would you describe your family?
How was your experience photographing grizzly bears?
Tell us about wolves.
What was your contribution in helping the koalas, that the Australian government declared in northern Australia that koalas are imperiled?
Why do you click pictures of endangered species and also show them in extreme situations?
How do you think the camera trap has helped?
How has wind disturbed the wildlife?
What was the bitter lesson for you from the oil spill story?
Why should we care about the endangered species?
How can we make kids aware about the issue of environment protection?
What is your opinion about the presentation of the exhibition Photo Ark?
Do you think the public realizes how bad the situation is for many species at this moment?
How are we dependent on endangered species?
What do you hope the Photo Ark does to people?
Can you tell us something about how children experience the Photo Ark exhibition?
Who are wildlife heroes?
What are the most difficult animals to photograph?
What is the physical impact of all the travelling and press attention on you?
Why did you want to tell the story about the northern white rhino?
What is special about the photo of the Capuchin monkey?
When will the Photo Ark project be closed?
Which is more challenging/rewarding? Studio work or location work?
Both are equally challenging. I like working on studio portraits because I’ll at least see the animals, something I’m not guaranteed in the wild. The results of the studio work is often surprising, and when viewed together as a body of work I hope the Photo Ark raises as much awareness of the plight of endangered species as much or more than fieldwork.
What kind of camera should one buy?
I’m often asked to help people pick out cameras. Here are five camera-buying tips: How much camera do you need? For some people, an advanced point-and-shoot gives them all the creative flexibility they need. If you’re looking at a DSLR, you may not need the most expensive model unless you’re shooting ultra fast-action subjects or in very low light. The best camera is the one that you will use. That $2,000 DSLR will do you no good if it’s gathering dust on the shelf because it’s too heavy for you to carry comfortably. Try out a camera in person to make sure it feels good in your hands before you buy it. If you go with a DSLR, buy a less expensive body and dedicate more of your budget to lenses. Camera body technology changes constantly, but a bright, sharp lens will look just as beautiful five years from now. Are pro zoom lenses too expensive for you? Try out “prime” fixed focal length lenses. They cost less and have fewer moving parts to break. Still not sure what to get? Try before you buy with an equipment rental service. For a couple hundred bucks, you can spend a weekend trying out various cameras or lenses without the commitment of purchasing them.
Why do you do studio portraits?
Well, first, some of the species in the project simply can’t be found in the wild any more. Another reason for this portrait style is that it gives equal weight to creatures big and small. Some of the frogs I’ve photographed are the size of a thumbnail, and this is a way for me to put them on equal footing with bigger animals like lions.
Which species do you photograph?
Though I started with amphibians, as I went from place to place, I’d hear about other species in trouble—primates, reptiles, migratory birds, and more. So now I photograph anything that will hold still on a background long enough for me to take a picture.
What does a typical field setup of yours include?
A typical field setup includes the following: Nikon D850 camera bodies Nikon D810 camera bodies Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Nikkor wide angle zoom lens Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Nikkor wide angle zoom lens Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S Nikkor zoom lens Nikon 200-400mm f/4G AF-S SWM SIC ED IF VR II Nikkor super telephoto zoom lens Nikon 600mm f/4.0G ED VR II AF-S SWM super telephoto lens Nikon 60mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Micro-Nikkor lens Nikon 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor lens Nikon TC-14E II (1.4x) Teleconverter Nikon TC-20E III AF-S 2x Teleconverter Extension tubes Nikon SB-800/900 AF Speedlight Nikon SB-600/700 AF Speedlight flash Gitzo Tripod Kirk BH1 ball head Wimberly head (for large lenses) Really Right Stuff mounting plates Gold/Silver Reflector Amber Gel Lowepro Pro Rolling Backpack Lowe Pro Belt Pack With digital comes computers: Compact flash cards Card wallet Macbook Pro Portable hard drives (at least three) for backup and shipping images Photo Mechanic (a program to facilitate editing images) SanDisk Firewire 800 card reader Wolverine Card Reader/Storage Device—just in case the laptop crashes Specialized gear includes PocketWizard PLUS II Transceivers Trailmaster trigger beam system Underwater housings Underwater flashes Photo tent In studio setups, I use the following equipment: Elinchrom ELC Pro HD 1000 Dynalite Mk8-1222 Kit Photoflex Extra Small LiteDome Photoflex Small LiteDome Photoflex Medium LiteDome Photoflex OctoDome Sony 4K Handycam Camcorder A variety of background materials, stands, clamps, and other accessories
What kind of camera equipment do you use?
My first camera was a Nikon FM2. I paid extra to get the all-black body. It had no motor drive and came with one short, fixed focus lens, probably a 28mm. My first big lens purchase was a Nikon 180mm f/2.8. It was tack sharp and put a lot of pictures into my early portfolio. Things have changed a lot since then, though. These days, I only use digital cameras. They’re great because the feedback is instant, allowing me to experiment a little more than I might with film. The downside is that the equipment is more expensive, and digital files are costly to archive. The other problem with digital is that there is no surefire way to store the images. The only way to be absolutely certain you’ll be able to view an image in 20 years or more is to transfer it to paper or film. Whether it’s film or digital, you need to be prepared for the worst. Equipment can and does fail, and there’s nothing worse than having to cancel a shoot because your gear isn’t working. I always carry more than one camera body, more than one lens, more than one battery, and more than one charger. It makes for a lot of extra baggage, but better that than a missed opportunity. When traveling by air, I take the minimum I need to hit the ground and start shooting in a carry-on. That way if my checked baggage is lost, I can still accomplish the mission.
What were your favourite and least favourite assignments?
My favorite assignment was the ivory-billed woodpecker story (in the December 2006 issue of National Geographic). The search for the ivory-billed woodpecker was a pure delight to work on because I’ve been a huge fan of the bird since I was a child. 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, widow of famed IBW expert James Tanner. Via telephone she described her encounters with the last of the birds back in the early 1940s in the Singer Tract of Louisiana. My photo editor, Susan Welchman, my assistant, Katie Joseph, and I were on the other end. That was just icing on the cake. In general, I like photographing endangered species, especially the smaller creatures that nobody has ever heard of. Good photographs of rare plants and animals can be used to give them a voice. In some cases, a well timed article can save a species by drawing attention to its plight. It’s the little things that drive ecosystems, really, and yet they don’t get any attention. There’s a great line by Doug Chadwick: “There’s as much beauty in the beat of a butterfly wing as there is in the howl of a wolf.” I’m paraphrasing here because I’m too lazy to find the exact quote, but you get the point. It’s the little creatures that drive everything, and we’re losing them at an alarming rate. I think we should show good stewardship to all species, great and small. Clearly the best course of action is to protect entire ecosystems so that individual species don’t get into trouble in the first place. As for a least favorite story, it’s a tie between Madidi (very physically uncomfortable but it was worth it) and Connecticut (all-around unpleasant.)
How did you get interested in nature and the environment?
My mother had a set of Time-Life picture books. One was called The Birds. In that book was a look at several birds that have gone extinct, including the heath hen, the great auk, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Carolina parakeet, and the passenger pigeon. The very last passenger pigeon, a bird named Martha, was shown alive in a photo taken just before her death in the Cincinnati Zoo back in 1914. I was astounded. This was once the most numerous bird on Earth, with an estimated population of five billion, and here it was reduced to this single female, with no hope of saving it. I couldn’t understand how anyone could tolerate this. I still feel the same way, and I work hard to prevent this from ever happening again. Of course, things have gone much further downhill since then, but that doesn’t mean we don’t all keep trying. My first couple of assignments for National Geographic was the first real nature photography I did. “Eagles on the Rise” was a small story about an effort to hand-rear and release southern bald eagles into the American Southeast. The second story, on America’s Gulf Coast, was much broader, literally spanning from the tip of Florida to Brownsville, Texas. You can’t help but think about the environment constantly on a story like that. The development going on along the coastline was virtually nonstop and it was taking a very heavy toll on the plants and animals that live there. In addition, I photographed mosquito spraying in Florida, which kills far more invertebrates than just the target insect. Then I’d go to the beaches near Galveston, Texas, and there were dead dolphins on the beach surrounded by garbage including medical waste and plastic bottles from around the world. I also remember taking a boat ride up the Houston Ship Channel. The boat captain said he’d not seen anything alive in the channel in 20 years, but that he had seen it catch fire. All of these things really opened my eyes. The environment was in such terrible shape, yet people just ignored it.
How can photography help the environment?
Photography can do a huge service in two ways. It can expose environmental problems as nothing else can, and it can help get people to care. The stakes could not be higher. It’s ridiculous to think that we can destroy so many of the Earth’s plants, animals, and ecosystems and not think it can happen to us. All of this will come back to bite us, and sooner than we think. It will not be pleasant. I hate to be so negative but that’s what I’m hearing from each and every one of the natural history photographers that I know. It is all starting to fall apart now. The world’s oceans are overfished terribly, the air continues to grow filthier each year, and there are no signs of any slowing on the human overpopulation front. We may be winning some battles here and there, but we’re losing the war. The saddest part is that we all saw this coming, for decades, yet did very little to stop it. So what’s the root cause of all this? I believe it goes deep into human nature itself. We are so successful as a species because we are resourceful, driven, greedy, and never satisfied. No amount of material goods or money is ever enough. I’m afraid this will be our undoing. But all of us can and should do things to help turn the tide. Though things may be bad, it’s now more important than ever to try and save the Earth. You don’t have to be published in national magazines to make a difference, either. Local photographers can have a tremendous impact in getting their viewers to think about what’s going on environmentally. Ever see a series of photos shot from the same spot showing a meadow or a forested hillside being bulldozed and developed? You can’t look at a sequence like that and not stop to consider where you live as well as how you live. Or, what about a photo essay on industrial food production? There’s no end to the material, unfortunately. Groups like the International League of Conservation Photographers are starting to get photographers thinking environmentally and are also raising public awareness, from the man on the street to heads of state. Cristina Mittermeier has done an amazing thing in founding this group. Now it’s up to all of us to really show the world what’s happening out there. There’s not a moment to lose. It is not enough, nor is it responsible journalistically, to show just pretty animals in an idyllic landscape. We must now show the threats to these creatures as well. Do we need to continue to show the beauty of nature? Absolutely. But we can’t pretend anymore that everything is lovely. Our photos need to inform readers of what’s really going on out there. The good news is that there are many publishers who want to publish stories on environmental issues. Self-publishing online is also an important option.
How does the National Geographic assignment process work?
National Geographic magazine (NGM) assignments can take two or more years, span entire continents, and involve 40,000 or more images. The story process is the method behind the chaos, charting the course from idea to printed page. The first step in getting a story approved is doing a one-pager. It’s a single page straight-to-the-point write-up that (a) tells why a story is important, (b) explains what will make it unique, and (c) gives justification for National Geographic spending the resources to pursue the story at this point in time. Every pitch must meet those three criteria or it won’t even get out of the gate. I generate some of my own story ideas (stories I pitched on amphibian decline and on the endangered Attwater’s prairie-chicken got picked up), but in most cases though, I hear of a story that is being considered and I request it. While I don’t always get what I ask for, it helps to let them know that I’m interested in a particular topic. I’ve also had stories assigned to me about which I know nothing. At that point it’s good to quickly pay attention and do as much research as possible to get up to speed quickly. The next step is to research the topic and come up with a general list of situations to photograph, known as a coverage plan. The research phase is critically important. I’m in charge of making sure I know what I need to know before going out into the field. On each story, I’m assigned a photo editor at the magazine. Often they help me come up with ideas and make sure they’re all worth going after. I get lots of help from scientists and experts who know the subject I’m working with, people who live in the areas I’ll be in, and people who have worked with a subject/area previously. The photo coordinators at National Geographic are also a big help when it comes to arranging visas, hunting down phone numbers, and doing the several dozen other tasks that go along with putting story research together. They’re lifesavers. The way I research is to read up on a topic, find out who I need to talk with to learn more, and then make phone calls. Sometimes our line is busy all day, and in the days before unlimited calling plans I’ve had more than one $1,000 phone bill. Talking to those in the know is one of the best ways to prepare. Once the shoot list is done, I work with my editor to put together a budget for the story. When that’s approved, we nail down travel and logistics, and I’m off to shoot. I seldom travel with the writer. I have do so on a few stories simply because it was convenient, but the writer and I have each generated our own coverage plans and we each follow them. We talk often about what we’re doing so that we don’t miss anything important. I may not photograph much of what the writer mentions in the text; NGM’s stories are designed so that the text and the pictures complement one another. Doing this—rather than repeating subjects in writing and photographs—allows readers to get more information. Halfway through an assignment, I go in to the Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to meet with my editor and the higher-ups at the magazine to assess progress on the story. The photo editor and I put together a “halfway show” of the best pictures we’ve gotten so far. My editor and I both discuss the story’s progress with those at the meeting and they decide whether or not the story will be finished. When the story is completed, we put together a final show—the best of the best from the whole assignment. Then the editor and others sift through these to find the images that will be published. On an average assignment, I’ll shoot anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 images. Only a small number (anywhere from 10 to 20 depending on the story) will be published. On some assignments, I’ll go back for the layout process. That’s when the text and pictures are assembled in final form for the magazine. After that, I help with fact-checking, writing captions (or legends, as they’re referred to at NGM), and tying up any loose ends. I know of no other magazine that so heavily involves the photographer in both the editing and layout process. A story is usually published one year after it’s shot, and during that time I’m bound by contract to keep the details of it confidential. When the story is finally printed, it feels great to see a completed project. I know of no other magazine besides National Geographic that works this closely with photographers, or gives them as much time in the field.
Do you ever assist other photographers?
I’ve helped out Bill Frakes and Ted Kirk, both longtime pros in the business. I’ve also had the pleasure of watching Christian Ziegler, Ian Nichols, Paul Nicklen, and Tim Laman at work in the field. I learn something from each and every person I watch work, from wildlife shooters to wedding photographers.
What’s a National Geographic photographer’s salary?
For starters, it’s not a salary. National Geographic photographers are all independent contractors. That means that their contracts cover one story at a time. No contract, no work; no work, no paycheck. The editorial rate in the U.S. is about $400-$500 per day. This seems like a lot until you consider that you don’t work every day and must pay for your own equipment and insurance, and cover taxes to boot. Being a freelance photojournalist is not for the faint of heart and takes financial discipline. It’s feast or famine—definitely not a steady nine-to-five job.
How long does it take you to photograph each one of these endangered species?