Joel Sartore, intrepid National Geographic photographer and author, has been on a tour covering Australia and New Zealand with his show Grizzlies, Piranhas and Man-Eating Pigs: On Assignment with Joel Sartore, which I was fortunate enough to see in Melbourne recently. A wildlife photographer and traveller since his college days, Joel certainly had many unusual anecdotes to share: One particularly gruesome one involved being isolated for three weeks because of a potential infection caused by bat droppings while shooting in Egypt.
Not surprisingly, Sartore sees his work as not only bringing to people stories of exotic animals, but as a message of conservation. Things are looking decidedly grim these days for those wishing to protect nature’s biodiversity; with humanity’s population tipped to reach 10 billion people this century (a conservative estimate) our demand for resources will inevitably increase – resources which will require us to enter unknown lands and push their current inhabitants further out into the fringes of our awareness. Conservation is obviously not a new idea, although it is one that has become increasingly ‘politicised’. Despite evident causes for the dramatic increases in rates of species extinction and declines in animal populations, it is apparently taboo to mention them. As a photographer of wildlife, you are permitted to show cute pictures of furry animals, but mention climate change and you are being ‘political’ and straying from your expertise.
Humanity’s efforts to save our fellow creatures on this planet have focussed largely on animals with an advantageous ‘photogenic’ trait over their peers – some good examples being the panda, the dolphin or the polar bear: animals that are synonymous with conservation movements.
While these are laudable efforts, how are we to focus on other species that also play fundamental roles in maintaining our planet’s biodiversity, such as that of the humble earthworm? Even my description of the earthworm as ‘humble’ is humanising it, presenting it in a positive light to make up for its apparent insignificance or unattractiveness, when as we know it plays a vital role in the rejuvenation of ecosystems.
Sartore attempts to bridge this empathy ‘gap’ with his Photo Ark project, which can be accessed at www. joelsartore.com/galleries/the-photo-ark. Photo Ark is an attempt to “level the playing field” by taking close-up photos of a wide variety of species with a plain background. He has so far documented over 2600 species, and scrolling through the list revealed, at least to me, my ignorance of almost all the species it contained. Some of these shoots take many hours of work to prepare, as a short video shows (hilariously) on his website.
Overall, Sartore attempts to merge the old and new. His Photo Ark project combines the old message of conservation with the digital immediacy required to stay relevant to a fickle audience. He manages to straddle the fragile divide between entertainment and lecture mostly successfully, although his response to one audience question (“What should we do about older generations who stubbornly refute climate change? Probably wait for them to die off”) lays bare his frustrations with those armchair critics who dismiss climate change while he is outside witnessing its effects. A frustration I am sympathetic to (despite my very comfy armchair).