Joel Sartore had miles to go last week to meet an African clawless otter.

It was waiting for his cameras at a zoo in Virginia, but he’d just left Louisiana, where he photographed more than a dozen birds — including the black crake and red-crowned crane — at a private aviary.

And after Virginia, the National Geographic photographer was headed to an endangered turtle center in South Carolina. Next, four days in Florida, and more portrait sessions with an assortment of insects, birds, reptiles and small mammals, including a woolly opossum and a marsh rabbit.

He’ll be back in Lincoln by the end of the week to watch his daughter Ellen graduate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — but he won’t be home long.

After a few days, he’ll board a plane for Peru, to see the only South American short-eared dog in captivity. From there, the Arabian Peninsula. He’ll be Idaho in early October, for Snake River sockeye salmon, and Portland, Oregon, for a Bornean elephant.

And then, he said, he plans to come home to nap. For a month.

During an average year, a year not plagued by a pandemic, Sartore spends only about half of his nights in his own bed.

“I tell myself I won’t jam myself up with shoot after shoot,” he said last week from somewhere east of Shreveport, Louisiana. “But when someone says we have the last one, or the only one, in captivity that you’ll see in your lifetime, how can you say no to that?”

He can’t. So he’s followed his National Geographic Photo Ark project — his goal to single-handedly document the 20,000 or so species in captivity on Earth, to draw attention to their value and their fragility — around the world, to nearly every U.S. sanctuary and zoo so far, and to 50 countries.

And he’s only a little more than halfway done.

But when he started all of this 15 years ago this week, Sartore saw it as a simple way to stay closer to home.

Joel Sartore at work

Joel Sartore shoots an animal’s portrait for his Photo Ark series.

‘I didn’t want to sit around the house’

In the summer of 2006, John Chapo, president and CEO of the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, answered his phone. It was Joel Sartore, and he needed to come talk to him.

“He said, ‘Chapo, I’m not going anywhere for a long time but I need to use my creative juices. I’ve always thought about doing portraits of animals. Can we do it here?’”

“I said, ‘Well, have you done this before?’”

“He said, ‘No,’ and I said, ‘OK, let’s give it a shot.’”

Sartore had made his living traveling the world for National Geographic. But that year, as his wife Kathy was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, he needed to stay home.

“I didn’t want to sit around the house all the time,” Sartore said. “John Chapo just kind of humored me.”

Sartore had taken plenty of pictures of animals in the wild, but he wanted to try something new — crisp portraits against stark black or white backdrops.

The absence of context, the lack of a natural setting, levels the playing field, he said, giving a mouse the same stature as an elephant. And the intimacy — the eye contact — helps humans see something deeper in another species.

“My hope is that people see some portrait of a monkey or a pheasant and they can look into those eyes and see there’s great beauty there, and intelligence, and that these animals have a right to exist.”

But that goal would come later. In August 2006, Sartore was just trying to stay busy.

That first day, he photographed a buck-toothed naked mole rat against a bright-white countertop in the zoo’s kitchen.

Joel Sartore Photo Ark

A naked mole rat photographed at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo 15 years ago is the the first image in what became the National Geographic Photo Ark.

And that first day started something. Sartore returned again and again, ultimately photographing almost all of the Lincoln zoo’s species, maybe 70 to 80 in all, Chapo said.

“We just started working together very cautiously, very safely, with the animals, and we kept moving forward,” Chapo said. “So many of our animals are engageable animals, it was easy to start the Photo Ark at the zoo.”

As Sartore’s wife recovered, he started making trips beyond 27th and A streets, photographing species within a day’s drive — Omaha, Des Moines, Kansas City, Denver, Rapid City’s Reptile Gardens.

In the beginning, he paid out of pocket for the project. He didn’t have grant funding and, when he returned to work, he didn’t yet have the formal backing of National Geographic — though he did have an editor who pitched pieces that allowed him to double dip.

“She would send me on assignments that were hybrids. I could shoot animals in the wild and also get my studio portraits, too.”

Also in the beginning, he didn’t call it the Photo Ark.

He called it the Biodiversity Project.

“My wife said, ‘Nobody’s going to remember that.’ I said, ‘No, I think it’s good.’ But then I was being interviewed on live TV, and I forgot it.”

The Photo Ark

An endangered Malayan tiger, Panthera tigris jacksoni, at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.

An audience of a ‘gazillion’

With a new name, the Photo Ark caught on.

A decade after Chapo let Sartore take that first photo, the two were on the set of NBC’s “Today Show,” along with a tarantula, a large tegu lizard, Fez the Armadillo and Johnny the Serval, an African wild cat.

They went on the air after Shirley MacLaine, Chapo remembered. “Seal was running late, so we got his slot. And his slot got shrunk because we were doing so great they loved our segment and gave us more time.”

That same year, Fez the Armadillo and a peacock from Lincoln made the covers of National Geographic. Zoo animals from Lincoln would also be projected on walls of the Vatican, The Hague and the United Nations headquarters.

Lincoln had helped launch the Photo Ark, and the Photo Ark was paying it back.

Early on, Sartore told Chapo he could use photos he took at the zoo. “And for a National Geographic photographer to say, ‘You get to use the photos I take for free,’ it’s like, really? It’s like hallelujah. Before that, it was me with my simple little camera,” the zoo CEO said.

And as the project’s reach grew each year, Chapo appreciated the role his zoo played in its beginnings. A movement, a cause, had started with a naked mole rat on a kitchen countertop in Lincoln.

“I’m very proud of the fact the zoo launched this exceptional project, because it has touched tens of millions of lives.”

He’s not exaggerating. A few years after Sartore started the Photo Ark, National Geographic was firmly behind it, flexing its media muscle to publicize the project.

Every time it posts a Photo Ark animal, its 525 million followers see it across several social media platforms. The Photo Ark has inspired three multi-part television series, one on PBS and two on Nat Geo Wild. Sartore and his work have appeared on “60 Minutes,” “Access Hollywood,” NPR’s “Fresh Air” and more.

National Geographic has already published four Photo Ark books, with two more on the way. An estimated 6.5 million people have toured the traveling Photo Ark exhibit, its most popular ever, said Colby Bishop, senior director of wildlife programs for the National Geographic Society.

National Geographic has also built a free Photo Ark curriculum for educators, launched a fellowship program for early career conservationists in Latin America, Asia and Africa working to protect the species Sartore has photographed, and orchestrated a nationwide billboard campaign.

Sartore and his family were standing in the middle of New York’s Times Square the moment almost all of its electronic billboards switched to Photo Ark images, Bishop said.

The Photo Ark

A federally threatened koala, Phascolarctos cinereus, with her babies at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital.

She couldn’t estimate the total number of people exposed to Sartore’s photos in the past 15 years.

“I could say gazillions. Since the goal is to get this in front of as many people as possible, that’s what we do.”

Minimizing harm, racing the clock

Late last week, the man who started this movement was 2 feet from the venomous fangs of a canebrake rattlesnake, waiting for the right moment to squeeze the shutter.

Sartore has photographed more than 11,000 species in captivity, and has 10,000 or so more to go, but insists on taking all of the pictures himself.

“If we try crowdsourcing, we’d end up with animals that would be harmed. We’re really careful about not stressing animals. We pride ourselves on not doing any harm.”

He tries hard to limit his impact on the animals. He keeps each photo shoot to a matter of minutes, minimizes talking, doesn’t use his camera’s auto drive.

But he knows the clock is ticking. He was 44 when he started what became the Photo Ark; he’s 59 now. He has another 10 to 15 years of work left. “Hopefully, I can finish this thing before I die of old age.”

Sartore aligator

Lincoln-based photographer Joel Sartore during a National Geographic Photo Ark portrait session.

He was nearly grounded last year, when the pandemic’s travel bans threatened to delay his progress. Then he stepped outside his house on Sheridan Boulevard one night early last summer.

He noticed all of the insects drawn to his porch light. He started experimenting with other bulbs. Halogen. Sodium. Mercury vapor. He directed the beams to white sheets, collected the insects, took their portraits and released them.

But he didn’t know what they were. He’d heard of a Bellevue couple, Loren and Babs Padelford, who could identify insects, so he knocked on their door, a Photo Ark book in hand as a gift and a request for help.

“They said, ‘That sounds interesting.’ I said, ‘I don’t think you understand. You know what happens when you swim out to a drowning man? He climbs on top of you and drowns you, too. I’m going to send you insects seven days a week.”

The Photo Ark

A pygmy slow loris, Nycticebus pygmaeus, at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

The amateur entomologists got sucked in, identifying the photos Sartore was sending them. They accompanied him on mothing trips to state parks in Nebraska and neighboring states, where Sartore would fire up a generator, illuminate a light, hang up a sheet and collect new species.

By the end of the year, the couple had identified more than 700 distinct species of insects for Sartore and the Photo Ark.

And they were happy to, Loren Padelford said.

“We didn’t know what we were getting into when we said, ‘Yeah, we’ll help you.’ We had no idea it would turn out to be what it did.”

Their role was important, Sartore said.

Even the smallest species — the obscure insects drawn to his porch light on a summer night in Lincoln — are crucial, and deserve to be seen.

Joel Sartore Photo Ark

Joel Sartore collects endemic insects to photograph near Deerwood, Minn. 

They need clean air, clean water and a stable climate, he said.

And so does the human species.

“How we treat all these lesser species will really determine whether people survive in the long term. All these things these other species need to survive, we need those things, too. It’s at our own peril we ignore the natural world.”

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