Pandas, frogs and tigers: photographing intimate portraits of endangered species


National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore has traveled all over the world taking pictures of endangered species in their natural habitats — feeding, playing, and mating.

But in 2005, his wife was diagnosed with cancer, and Sartore stepped away from working in the field to care for her and their three kids.

While at home, Sartore decided to take simple, intimate photographs of vulnerable animals in a studio. He’s shot more than 8000 portraits as part of his Photo Ark. Some of them are on display now at the Annenberg Space for Photography.

Sartore hopes the images will give people a new perspective on what we could lose if the animals go extinct. He tells Press Play, “We’re trying to show the world what biodiversity looked like at this point in time before humanity squandered half of it. By 2100, we’re supposed to have lost half of everything you see in the Photo Ark. And I want this project, if possible, to get the public to fall in love with these animals and realize we have to save big chunks of habitat to save them and ourselves, that we’re all tied together.”

He says his job is to give a voice to all different animals, no matter how small or large — and have them be heard before they go extinct. “A lot of the species I’ve photographed are not going to make it,” he says.

Interview highlights

Many of the animals look like they have human expressions  

We’re animals too. See, there’s no difference. They are extremely intelligent. They are survivors. They’re playful, and joyous, and malicious, and aggressive, and smart. And people don’t give animals any credit.

Why the plain black or white background?

Not only does it allow us a clear view of the animal, there’s no distractions, and we can look him right in the eye. Which humans, we are primates. We respond to eye contact, big time. But also, there’s no size comparison. So a mouse is every bit as big as an elephant. Just as glorious.

Does an animal ever ruin the set?

When I first started the Photo Ark, I went to this place called the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kansas, and they had these chimps. And they let me put an 8 ft wide roll of white, seamless paper up — to do this troop of chimps on. We used this super duct tape, and it took about an hour to prep the set, and we used this linen paper that was strong.

One chimp looked at it, stuck its arm in the enclosure, and ripped the whole thing out. And you could hear him screaming as they ripped it all up. I never got a single picture. I still don’t have a good picture of an adult chimp.

Photographing toads, rodents, insects

We all know what gorillas and tigers and elephants look like. But we really have never seen most of the rest of creation or biodiversity… Those are the animals I’m really interested in: the least among us; the things that are brown and crawl and live in the soil; moles and voles and earthworms and even cockroaches, believe it or not. All of biodiversity is what I’m interested in.

The urgency of preservation

There is a single male aquatic frog that lives in the bottom of an aquarium in Cochabamba, Bolivia that I need to get to soon because he’s the last one. They are extinct in the wild. So I need to get to this frog, and I just learned about him… two weeks ago.

…I’ve photographed several (animals) that have gone extinct or are nearly extinct now… Like the Northern White Rhino. I photographed the fifth one of those that were alive. Now there’s just two left.

…There’s a frog at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens that we all knew was the last one, and he’s passed away now. But on the flip side of that, I don’t get depressed. I get inspired to tell their stories and to keep it from happening over and over again. And I meet people that I would consider to be conservation heroes everyday when I’m working in the field — keepers that tend for these animals, and help breed critically endangered species back from the brink of extinction. I’ve met many people who have saved species almost single-handedly — just because they cared.