What We Learned From National Geographic Photographer Joel Sartore

There’s a lot that YPs can learn from Joel Sartore, the celebrated photographer whose illustrious career has taken him to over 35 different countries around the world. Joel has photographed it all: Bears catching salmon in the wilds of Alaska, colossal snakes commandeering the Pantanal waterways of Brazil, koala bears navigating the dangers of city life, a group of species that have been reduced down to just handfuls like the California condor or the pygmy rabbit, which has been completely pushed to extinction. Spending days or even months at a time waiting for the right shot, this is someone who has learned the value of patience and determination. 

When Joel came through Calgary a few weeks ago as part of the National Geographic Live series, he gave a compelling speech to an audience at the Jack Singer Hall about his unforgettable experiences as a wildlife photographer, the current challenges faced by animals due to the ever-widening foot print of humans and what we can do to change our habits. Joel’s passion for conservation and stewardship of the environment was moving and left an impression on everyone in the audience. 

A few days after the event, we decided to follow up with Joel to learn a little bit more about his Photo Ark project, what you might expect on a career path that is less travelled, and what we can do now to make sure the world is better for ourselves and future generations:

What is the Photo Ark?
When we asked Joel what got him out of bed in the morning. His response was, “the Photo Ark.” The Photo Ark has been Joel’s personal mission to document the vanishing bio-diversity of our planet before it’s too late. Today a growing number of species are facing a very real possibility of extinction, which makes the Photo Ark project harder and harder each year. To help keep the project buzzing, the National Geographic society has granted Joel a fellowship, and when he’s not working as a photographer he’s travelling as a speaker and an advocate to get the word out about his project. For Joel, seeing is believing, and the hope with the Photo Ark is that with sharing his images, people are going to see that urgency to change our perception towards the natural world and change our habits of consumption.

Hard Work Pays Off
To be one of the very best at what you do, success doesn’t always come easy. For Joel, this has meant being away from his family for half the year, travelling to some of the most remote, and sometimes dangerous, places on earth and not being afraid to broach subjects that are less than comfortable. During his presentation in Calgary, Joel recounted his time spent in Queensland, Australia where the koala bear population was being wiped out by encroaching city development (this meant battling with residents, traffic and dogs). At the time, the Australian government refused to acknowledge there was any problem, and according to advocacy groups in the area, the bears would have been extinct in less than five years if something wasn’t done.

Joel set to work documenting the harsh reality for these little bears including shots of rescued bears in animal shelters and in some cases capturing the death toll from automobile accidents and dog attacks each week. It wasn’t long after these photos were published that koala bears were moved onto the endangered species list, which was wonderful news for their population. 

Expect The Unexpected
As a wildlife photographer, an exciting but rare career choice, you are exposed to all different kinds of cultures, landscapes, people and animals. There is no doubt that working in this field has its many perks and exciting moments. For Joel, hanging off the side of a cliff to capture up-close shots of mountain goats or coming up with creative ways to shoot piranhas has just become part of a day’s work. However, there are always those situations that you’ll never be fully prepared for, like bat caves. 

While on assignment in Uganda, Joel had decided to photograph a bat cave, a task that would evoke fear in most normal people, but for someone who had spent their entire career around ferocious predators and wild weather conditions this probably seemed par for the course. The issue with photographing bats never began until he started to exit the cave and remove his protective gear. That’s when he was unfortunate enough to come into contact with bat guano, something that is just as lethal as a bite. Upon returning to his camp he quickly called the Centre for Disease Control to learn about what risks he might be facing and was less than happy to learn that he may have contracted Marburg virus, a disease that is similar to Ebola only much more severe. Joel spent several weeks in quarantine back home in Nebraska and was lucky to have not contracted the disease – but that bat cave will be a moment in his career that he will never forget.

What Can We Do?
During the National Geographic presentation people were drawn in by Joel’s wonderful storytelling and his great sense of humour. However, underneath the fun and entertainment is still a very real message, one that involves us making changes now to ensure that we adjust our priorities when it comes to dealing with the environment. These were a few key points that Joel brought up on how we can make a difference:

1. Think for yourself: Today, it’s too easy for us to just rely on Google for everything. To really understand issues, when need to experience them first-hand. 

2. Make your own path: As Joel put it, “It’s easy to go with the flow but how fun is that?” He went on to say that if we continue going with the flow we’re all in for a lot of trouble and we just need to realize that individuals can do powerful things. “You don’t have to be a National Geographic photographer to save the world.” 

3. Think about what you’re consuming: Watch your consumption of fossil fuels, drive less, buy a smaller car, consider alternative sources of power like wind and solar, eat less meat, shop at your farmers market, eat seasonally and turn down your thermostat.

To learn more about Joel Sartore and the Photo Ark, click here.

#LYNL | (Live Your Notable Life)

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