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Photographer Joel Sartore: Saving animals one portrait at a time

Pam LeBlanc

It’s all about eye contact.

That from National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, the man behind the Photo Ark project, which aims to document endangered and at-risk animals all over the world.

Sartore’s photographs of cuddly koalas, bug-eyed amphibians, sleek tigers and birds that look like they stepped out of a Fat Tuesday parade are set against solid black or white backdrops, making the animals jump out in detail. You feel like you’re face to face with each one, just by looking at a picture.

But behind the compelling photos lies a greater mission: Protecting rapidly disappearing species.

Sartore compares the project to a giant dating service, where people look at photos and fall in love with one particular species, then do what they can to save it.

“You won’t save it if you’ve never met it,” he told a crowd gathered at the JW Marriott for the annual luncheon of the Nature Conservancy in Texas.

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Sartore wove in behind-the-scenes stories of how he got some of the photos, showing video snippets of chimps destroying in a handful of seconds a backdrop he’d worked hard to assemble, and clips of a bird pecking the lens of his $6,000 camera with its long, curved beak.

“They all count, no matter how ugly,” he said. “These are works of art, every one of them.”

Sartore works quickly. His photo sessions typically last less than 5 minutes, and he works hard not to stress his subjects. The key is good lighting and an up close perspective, he says.

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After a decade of work, he’s about halfway through the project – and several of the species he has photographed have already gone extinct.

“Does it make me sad? Yes, but mostly it pisses me off,” he said. “Why do we need to wait until things get so dire? The clock is ticking, but I’m here to tell you it’s not too late.”