One man. 6,000+ species. One critical mission.

Q&A with Photo Ark Founder and National Geographic Photographer Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore is a photographer, speaker, author, teacher, conservationist, National Geographic fellow, and a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine. He started the Photo Ark project in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. Since then, Sartore has visited 40 countries in his quest to create this photo archive of global biodiversity, and to date, he has completed portraits of more than 6,000 species.

You may have seen the April 2016 issue of National Geographic which featured Photo Ark. A first in the magazine’s history, ten different Photo Ark images were featured on multiple covers of that month’s issue. 

The multi-year project included an exhibition that was presented at the National Geographic Museum last year. The San Diego Natural History Museum is thrilled to be hosting the first presentation of this exhibition outside of Washington, D.C.  More than 30 of Sartore’s iconic images are on view in the fourth floor photography gallery through April 30. 

We chatted with Sartore about this incredible project and his love of photography and wildlife.

What is your goal for the project?

To photograph every captive animal species on Earth in order to get the public to care about the extinction crisis, while there's still time to save species.

What sparked your love of photography and/or animals?

My parents both loved nature. My father took me hunting, fishing, even mushroom hunting, all through the year as I was growing up in Nebraska.

My mother appreciated the flowers, birds, and squirrels that graced our suburban yard and in the town park behind our house.

Between the two of them, I’ve never thought of nature as anything other than a joyful place and a vitally important part of life.

Photographing live animals can be challenging. What are some of the most interesting things that have happened during this process?

The most interesting thing to me is getting to see these creatures up close and in person. They’re all interesting in their own unique way.

I suppose what would be most interesting to your readers, however, would be the times that the shoots were out of the ordinary. Most of these shoots go extremely smoothly because the animals have been around people all their lives, but sometimes the critters do ‘have their way’ with my backgrounds and sets. A classic example of this happened at the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kansas. See this clip to find out what happened.

How long do you think it will take to photograph all 12,000 species?

We're at 6,300 now, so another 10 years or so, maybe 15.

What kind of camera do you use/prefer? Why?

I use Nikon D810 and D5 cameras because they're durable as can be and sealed up against dirt and moisture. I've been a Nikon guy all my life because their cameras have never failed me, and I've been in some very tough places.

What tips do you have for young, aspiring nature photographers?

I'd say to do it because you love it, but perhaps don't plan on making a living from it. There are too many great photographs out there now, mostly available for free, so it's hard to compete with all that. If you do find yourself wanting to try and make a career of it, then be sure to specialize and really hone in. Become an expert on a photographic style or subject matter. That'll help set you apart from the pack.

Being a National Geographic photographer sounds so exotic! Can you identify a few favorite locations or assignments?

Antarctica was my favorite place by far. I went on a National Geographic Lindblad trip and it was just amazing; pristine and full of towering blue icebergs and penguins everywhere. Besides that, Uganda was a treat in that I got to do an assignment on the wildlife of Africa’s Albertine Rift, including lions that sleep in the trees and mountain gorillas. Of course, I had to call it quits after coming in contact with the Marburg virus (a cousin to Ebola) so that part wasn’t fun, but otherwise a great trip.

Travel is literally the best investment one can make in yourself. I’d encourage everyone to go somewhere they can afford, even if it’s just exploring a neighboring city or state. The world is a big, amazing place, and always will be.

Additional information on the National Geographic Photo Ark and how to get involved is available at

Posted By Senior Director of Communications Rebecca Handelsman.

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