Travel Lens: Joel Sartore’s World

Joel Sartore is, among other things, a lifelong Nebraskan, an Eagle Scout, and a veteran photographer for National Geographic magazine. He’s also someone who cares deeply about the fate of our planet, and all the species that depend on it, including us.

His long career makes that priority clear. Sartore specializes in documenting endangered species and landscapes in order to show a world worth saving. “It is folly to think that we can destroy one species and ecosystem after another and not affect humanity,” he says. “When we save species, we’re actually saving ourselves.”

Here’s a look at the world and all that’s in it through Joel Sartore’s unique lens:

Sarah Polger: Where do you call home? Why, out of every place in the world, do you choose to make your home there?

Joel Sartore: Lincoln, Nebraska, because my wife’s parents lived there. As they say, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

SP: Is there a place in the world that draws you back again and again as a photographer? Why?

JS: Alaska, for its sheer beauty, and Florida, for all the species creeping closer to extinction each year.

SP: You document endangered species throughout the world and help bring to light important stories of our time. What’s the next story you want to tell? 

JS: I’m doing a personal project called The Photo Ark.

I’m attempting to photograph every animal species [that exists only] in captivity around the world, using studio lighting and black-and-white backgrounds.

The goal is to get the public to look these species in the eye, and to care, while there’s still time to save many of them.

We’re supposed to lose half of all [these captive] species to extinction by the turn of the century, so there’s no time to lose. After nine years I’ve photographed 3,700 species, so I’m about a third done.

A grey-shanked douc langur (Pygathrix cinerea) a critically endangered primate from Vietnam. This animal's name is Eric. (Photograph by Joel Sartore)
A grey-shanked douc langur (Pygathrix cinerea), a critically endangered primate from Vietnam. This animal’s name is Eric. (Photograph by Joel Sartore)

SP: Where has that project taken you recently, and where are you going next?

JS: I was just in Vietnam cataloging rare primates, in Utah photographing birds, and am headed to the Monterey Bay Aquarium [in California] for marine invertebrates. If only I could make a living doing this.

SP: Why is travel important? How has it changed you?

JS: Travel is the best investment you can make in yourself. It teaches you that there are many ways to live a good, fulfilled life. It broadens your world view, yet makes you appreciate home all the more.

SP: If you could recommend only one place in the whole world to visit, what would that be?

JS: Antarctica and South Georgia. Both are in such pristine, original condition. No jet contrails, ever. Fur seal pups that waddle right into your lap. Icebergs the size of Manhattan, in colors as deep and blue as a bruise, with penguins riding along, albeit very slowly, just enjoying the view.

When I got home [from visiting this area of the world], I went to my mother’s for dinner and she said, “Joel, I haven’t seen you this relaxed since college.” And I said, “Madre, I’m as loose as creamed corn.”

SP: Of all the places you’ve been to in your travels, which place has changed the most since you visited it last?

JS: Florida. Places where I’ve done environmental work are gone now, replaced by hordes of people, traffic, and chain stores. It’s very depressing. A foreshadowing for everywhere else, I suppose, as we race towards eight billion souls, then nine, then ten.

SP: How does being on assignment in a place change the way you approach it?

JS: It forces you to try to learn everything you can, from the timing of weather and festivals to daily culture. But on the other hand it sucks the fun right out of it, to be honest.

Being on assignment is not a vacation. It’s work.

SP: How can travel be a force for positive change? How can we make experiencing the world a sustainable–and accessible–enterprise?

JS: Travel can be a very powerful tool to save species.

When you pay local people to show you birds, or lions, or gorillas, you are very publicly proclaiming that these species are worth more money alive than dead. In a very capitalistic world, this keeps animals from going extinct.

A king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) rookery from South Georgia Island's St. Andrews Bay. Shown is one of the largest king penguin colonies in the world at 100,000 nesting pairs. (Photograph by Joel Sartore)
A king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) rookery from South Georgia Island’s St. Andrews Bay, home to one of the largest king penguin colonies in the world. (Photograph by Joel Sartore)

SP: Can you remember a specific time in your travels that renewed your faith in humanity?

JS: I see a lot of good and bad wherever I go, but the kindness I see at the world’s zoos and animal rehab centers from the people who work there day in, day out, is amazing to me. They care about their animals like their own children.

Good care is critically important work, especially now that some species exist only in captivity. Truly, they are the keepers of the kingdom from now on.

SP: What do you never leave home without when you’re on the road?

JS: Something good to read. And dental floss.

SP: What’s something people never ask you about travel, but should?

JS: They should ask, “What’s it really like over there?” and then be ready to really listen.

I think some people live an antiseptic life, worried all the time about things like germs and getting dehydrated. Ever notice people constantly carrying water bottles and using that anti-bacterial gel whenever they touch something?

Well, I’m here to say that if you want to enjoy yourself when traveling, you better learn to set that baggage down. Open yourself up to experiencing other ways of life. Stay out of the chain hotels and chain restaurants, and for god’s sake, get dirty.

Joel Sartore is an award-winning photographer, speaker, author, teacher, conservationist, and Nat Geo fellow. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @joelsartore. 

Sarah Polger is senior photo producer at National Geographic Travel. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter @sarahpolger. 

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  1. Ben Weddle
    Kansas City
    July 22, 2014, 2:02 pm

    Joel’s ability to display a creature’s personality is unique. This is a seminal work and needs to be recognized as such. As revered as Ansel Adams is for his documenting of natural resources, Joel’s commitment and talent land him, as well, in the pantheon of great photographers.

  2. Collin Reed
    Tempe, Arizona
    June 2, 2014, 7:11 pm

    Nice Q&A Sarah. I used to work at Mesa Arts Center where Joel has spoken and his talk was amazing. He can really bring you along in a story with his photographs. I’ve been following his Photo Ark project for some time now and have been really enjoying it! He’s a very talented and lucky man! – @collin_reed

  3. Phillip Lake
    Brandon, MS
    May 28, 2014, 4:09 pm

    WOW! Really good article. The bears and the thought of the animals coming up to you like a long lost friend. A lot of people ask and wonder what it will be like in Heaven: God made the animals first because He loves them without measure just as He does us. One of the things that excites me the most is the fact that when I get to Heaven I will see the …Bear will be gentle and the wolf will be tamed..and the lion will lay down by the lamb BUT I will be able to play with and love on all the animals – forever. Joel is already living that dream – lucky dude.

  4. Cynthia Hever
    United States
    May 28, 2014, 3:53 pm

    A wonderful read filled with sound advice. Keep up the good works!