An Interview with Wildlife Photographer Joel Sartore

March 23, 2010 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |

1. Briefly describe a Day in the Life of Joel Sartore!

If I'm home, I'm doing paperwork and editing and helping to take care of my kids.If I'm in the field, I'm waking up way too early, going out in the dark and getting into position for shooting at daybreak. I try to take some food and plenty of water since I'll not be coming back to my tent or back to civilization until well after dark most days.

One nice thing about shooting for the Rare book is that the hours were much better. Because most of the animals were captive, I could only work when the various zoos and aquariums were open, say 8-5pm. So when the zoo closed, I'd have to leave.

2. What is your favourite kind of photography, and what is it that interests you so much?

I've always been really interested in endangered species. It's a matter of life and death, quite literally, and so the race is on to save them. My job is to get the public to first become aware that these creatures exist, then get them to care. It's truly a matter of our own survival as well,you know? It's folly to think that we can continue to trash the entire living world and not think it will come back to bite us in a very big way.

Photography can do a huge service in two ways. It can expose environmental problems as nothing else, 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.

An Interview with Wildlife Photographer Joel Sartore

I hate to be so negative but that’s what I’m hearing from each and every one of the NG natural history photographers that I know. It is all starting to fall apart now. The world’s oceans are over-fished 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 we are 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. Let’s hope that all of the ILCP members hear the call.

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