One Man's Quest To Capture America's Endangered Zoo Animals (With A Camera)

To spend a day in the life of National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, there are a few things you have to get used to. Really long drives, for one. Tigers charging at you. And, of course ... well ... messes.

"I'm the only studio portrait photographer I know whose subjects routinely poop and pee on the background right in front of me," he says from behind the lens.

It's a comical sight here behind the scenes at the National Aquarium in Baltimore: Sartore, two animal handlers and a ridiculous amount of gear are cramped into a tiny, 50-degree back room. All for a puffin. Sartore is doing all he can to coax the little guy into a handsome headshot. In my mind, this is fun, but for him, it's serious business.

This is what Sartore does in his down time, between Geographic shoots. His ambition: Photograph as many zoo species as possible. Of the 6,000 species he estimates are represented in zoos and aquariums, he's already captured nearly a third. For now, he's calling it The Biodiversity Project. (Though he will be taking suggestions for a catchier name on Field Test, the Geographic blog where he's been chronicling the project.)

"The goal of this project is to get people to look these things in the eye before they go extinct," he says. "Not everything I shoot is rare, but a lot is.

"I just figure, for a lot of these species, these pictures are all that's going to remain," he explains with a sigh at the end of the shoot.

Sartore sounds fatalistic, and that's because he kind of is. Among photographers, he's known for his book, Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species. The simplicity of shooting rare animals against black-and-white backgrounds is meant to put mosquitos and tigers on an equal level. Because in Sartore's mind, all animals are created equal.

And in his mind, they're all in danger — not just those on the government's endangered species list. "All these animals are ambassadors," he says. "They serve to remind us of what we had or what we have, hopefully, and that it's amazing."

It's in the same vein as John James Audubon and his obessive documentation of birds: Sartore seems almost compulsive about this visual record of fauna. "I've got a personality that's perfect for this," he admits. "I'm type-A. Can never put anything off. Fairly obsessive. And love to collect things."

Obsessive. Also passionate. And really, really concerned. Of the 30-plus stories he's published in National Geographic, most have something to do with endangered species. And he's got well-rehearsed responses for the questions you might have. Like mine: But aren't zoos depressing?

"We have a very non-nature-based life," he counters. "That's why zoos and aquariums are so important. It's the only place now where the public can go and actually see something without it being on a screen."

The hardest part about his job, beyond getting people to care, is being on the road, he says. Sartore spends about half the year away from his wife and three kids in Nebraska — where he recently bought 1,200 acres attempting to save a rare bird. He estimates he's put about 100,000 miles on his car just for this project.

Photographing is only half the battle, it seems. He wants people to "look these species in the eye" — which, for now, can be found on his website.

After the shoot, Sartore heads to the National Geographic offices for a magazine edit. Then it's another 24-hour drive back to Nebraska. With a few photo-intensive pit stops along the way, of course. He just can't help himself.

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