National Geographic 'Photo Ark' photographer adds Minnesota species to list of 12,400
Joel Sartore was in Duluth recently photographing fish at the Great Lakes Aquarium.
DULUTH — National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore took a side trip from his cabin near Deerwood recently to pop in at the Great Lakes Aquarium.
That’s where he was able to scratch off several more species on his life mission called Photo Ark, a massive collection of photos of living creatures from across the planet.
“I’ve been meaning to get over to Duluth since before COVID hit and finally got the timing right. They have a really unique collection of freshwater species,” Sartore said of the harborfront aquarium. “There’s a lot of attention worldwide on the big saltwater species. … But a lot less so on freshwater species that most people have never heard of.”
Take the spoonhead sculpin, for example, a little Lake Superior fish that doesn't get much attention, but which Sartore photographed in Duluth. And the sea lamprey, a grotesque, blood-sucking and terribly invasive species of fish from the Atlantic Ocean that nearly destroyed the Great Lakes ecosystem. But it’s still a living creature, and thanks to the aquarium’s exhibit, another checkmark on Sartore’s goal to photograph 24,000 species for his colorful electronic library of the world’s vast but shrinking biodiversity.
Sartore’s been working on the collection since 2006, starting with a photo of a tiny naked mole rat at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska. He’s now up to more than 12,400 species. He figures it may take him another 15 years to finish.
The focus of his photography is on creatures that are in human hands — places like zoos, aquariums, rehabilitation centers and research centers, or even birds being banded by scientists. That’s allowed him to get studio-quality portraits of many species. But he’ll also photograph animals, insects and other critters in the wild when he gets the chance.
“Big or small, I love them all. ... It might not be obvious to us, but they all have a role to play in the ecosystem,” Sartore said. “During COVID, when we couldn’t travel far, I spent most of a year photographing 1,000 species of insects” across the Midwest.
The aquarium isn’t the only place in Minnesota where Sartore has found his subjects. He’s photographed many animals at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Institute of Minnesota in Roseville and documented many species of freshwater clams, or mollusks, at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Center for Aquatic Mollusk Programs in Lake City. He’s photographed captive wolves at the International Wolf Center in Ely, but also wild wolves in the Superior National Forest and countless creatures around his cabin in Crow Wing County.
“I’m always looking,” he said.
Since COVID restrictions have relaxed, Sartore is back globetrotting much of the time now. He was in the United Arab Emirates in February, Duluth in March and will be on his way soon to Israel, Morocco, Egypt, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands in early summer. He’s already visited 60 different countries to take photos.
While endangered species get much of the public attention that Photo Ark has received — from magazine articles and TV news shows to National Geographic specials and even appearances by Sartore in a movie and a TV soap opera — Sartore says he’s trying to photograph everything, even if it’s common and thriving.
I hope my photos will inspire people. I want to show them, this is what we share the planet with. Isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it worth saving?
His goal isn’t just to have photos of creatures for people to lament once the species become extinct, but to inspire people who see the photos to take action now — to do something to help wildlife conservation and habitat conservation, to better the natural environment right now.
“I don’t want this to be one big ongoing obituary of what’s dying. I want it to be an index for what's still alive. Not only big, charismatic megafauna like wolves, grizzly bears, whales and tigers, but also little creatures like bats, butterflies and birds and bees,” Sartore told the News Tribune. “I hope my photos will inspire people. I want to show them, this is what we share the planet with. Isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it worth saving?”
That action could be as simple as avoiding using pesticides on your garden to protect sensitive bees and butterflies. Or it could mean joining a group that supports habitat conservation.
Inspiration from extinction
Sartore, 59, grew up looking at the photos in his mother’s Time Life picture books. One image that stuck out to him was a photo of Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon. With Martha’s death at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, the passenger pigeon, which once numbered in the millions, became extinct, thanks to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. Sartore has said he simply could not fathom how humans could allow that to happen, for a species to go from millions to zero.
That sense of avoidable loss sticks with Sartore today, and that single photo helped inspire a career.
Sartore grew up in Ralston, Nebraska, and graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a degree in journalism. He worked at the Wichita Eagle newspaper for six years before deciding to focus on freelance photography.
Sartore lives in Lincoln with his wife (they have two grown children) and noted the family vacationed for years at a fishing lodge on Leech Lake near Walker, Minnesota. When the place was sold and broken up into vacation homes, the family decided to buy their own cabin near Deerwood, just east of Brainerd.
“We get up there quite a bit. … We can get there from Lincoln in about eight hours driving,” said Sartore, who likes to fish for fun when he’s not taking fish photos. “Northern Minnesota is just so special.”
Sartore started the Photo Ark project, in between other assignments from National Geographic and other magazines, after his wife was diagnosed with cancer. She’s been in remission for years, but her disease, and his own brushes with peril in the field, made him want to leave a longer-lasting legacy. That’s what he hopes Photo Ark will be — a lasting legacy of wildlife conservation, like John Audubon's bird paintings, still admired nearly 200 years later.
Sartore’s work is being seen by millions of people in print, on TV and social media every day. His Facebook page has nearly 700,000 followers and his Instagram page has 1.6 million followers. His work is also often featured on National Geographic's Instagram page that has 212 million followers worldwide. That reach gives him hope.
“We can get the message out there about these species to so many people on social media,” Sartore said.
That message is not political, he insists. For people to want to keep the planet’s overall ecosystem functioning, in some sort of balance, to save as many species as possible, is clearly in everyone’s interest.
“Because we don't know at what point, when we lose some percentage of the other species, that it becomes the tipping point for us, for our survival,” he noted. “Saving other species is saving ourselves.”
For more information
Go to joelsartore.com to view the more than 12,400 species Sartore has photographed for Photo Ark. You can buy prints, buy photo books or even hire Sartore to speak at an engagement.
Going, going, gone
The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates some 41,415 species of plants and animals are endangered with 16,306 of them threatened with extinction.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be 1,000-10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate, the rate before humans began to have an outsized impact on other species. Experts calculate that 0.01%-0.1% of all species become extinct each year. Of the roughly 2 million species on the planet, that means between 200-2,000 extinctions occur every year.
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .