Joel Sartore doesn’t have a lot of time for small talk. The 57-year-old photographer is creating the Photo Ark, an ambitious project to document every animal species living in zoos and sanctuaries around the world, approximately 12,000 species, many of which are at risk or on the verge of extinction. So far, it’s taken him 13 years to photograph nearly 10,000 species, including the California condor, the southern sea otter, and the grizzly bear. Hundreds of the threatened or endangered species are native to California and the West.
Documenting animals is second nature for Sartore. He spent 17 years as a National Geographic field photographer, a job that took him around the globe. But when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, the Lincoln, Nebraska–based father of three spent a year, as he puts it, grounded. That downtime inspired Sartore to think of a long-term project he could begin from home. He started with animals from the Lincoln Children’s Zoo the following year.
“The first thing I photographed was a naked mole rat on a white cutting board in the kitchen,” says Sartore. The Photo Ark, a National Geographic project, has been adapted into multiple books and was the subject of a three-part PBS documentary.
Sadly, the existences of several animals photographed for the project, including the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit and the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog, are now in doubt. Through these intimate portraits, Sartore aims to educate and inspire the human species to save the planet’s remaining wildlife. “I wanted to create a body of work that would last,” he says. “I didn’t know what it would become at the time.”