Wildlife Photographer’s ‘Photo Ark’ To Rescue Species Using Animal Portraits

Mar 7, 2021, 11:53 PM | Updated: Jan 2, 2023, 11:50 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – Anyone who regularly logs into Facebook or Instagram has probably seen enough cute animal pictures to last a lifetime, but for one veteran wildlife photographer, animal “portraits” – not plain old cute photos – could be a key to “saving the planet.”

Unloading his camera gear at Utah’s Hogle Zoo, Joel Sartore said he’s shot about 11,000 of his distinctive animal portraits in the last 16 years.

“Although 1,000 are all insects from this summer during the pandemic,” said Sartore, a long-time wildlife photographer for National Geographic.

The goal of his “Photo Ark” project is to capture a single portrait of every species currently “in human care” around the world.

He estimated there are between 15,000 and 17,000 species in zoos, aquariums and other private facilities, all fair game for his camera and the Photo Ark project.

“We photograph rare or common animals, big or small, from elephants to ants,” he said.

It’s all part of Sartore’s 25-year plan, putting thousands of animal portraits in a metaphorical ark to save them from extinction.

“The goal of the Photo Ark is to become an ad campaign for nature,” he said, “to get people thinking about the things they can do to save the planet.”

At Hogle Zoo, his first quarry was an obscure species called the hyrax. The African native is about the size of a chihuahua, and at first glance, looks something like a furry woodchuck or a very fat squirrel.

“They kind of look like rodents, but they’re not related to rodents at all,” said Janice Thompson, the zoo’s small animal supervisor. “Their closest living relative is actually the elephant.”

Zoo employees coaxed a hyrax from its spacious enclosure into a small cage that was prepared in advance for Sartore’s camerawork.

He orchestrates each photo session so the resulting picture captures the look of a human studio portrait. His photos do not show the animal’s habitat or its facilities at the zoo.

He photographed the hyrax in front of a black paper backdrop. He shot two Hartmann’s Mountain Zebras named Zion and Ziva in front of a white sheet that zoo workers hung on a wall.

“We do all these portraits on black and white backgrounds, and we use studio lighting, kind of like a high school portrait,” Sartore said. “The reason we do that is because we want to give equal size and equal voice to every animal. In these portraits, a mouse is every big as an elephant.”

In many Photo Ark portraits he’s taken over the years, there is strong eye contact between zoo animals and human animals.

“We want people to see that these animals are living, sentient beings,” he said. “They’re conscious, they have emotions, they have a basic right to exist.”

Some animals aren’t necessarily cooperative; Sartore admits to one complete failure.

“Well, hah, hah, um, yeah, chimps, adult chimps,” he said. “They’re really tough.”

In a video posted on his Photo Ark website, viewers can find a hilarious sequence shot years ago at the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kansas. Zoo workers prepared a standard white paper backdrop in a small cage. As the chimp entered, the scene looked a bit like a movie star angered by paparazzi. The chimp glanced at the camera, bared his teeth and then yanked the white paper backdrop through the door and completely out of the cage.

Sometimes Sartore’s magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.

“I still don’t have a good portrait of an adult chimp,” he said.

But the Photo Ark cruises onward, with plenty at stake. Sartore believes the fate of humans is intertwined with all the species facing an extinction crisis.

“We cannot doom half of all species to extinction and think that people will be just fine,” he said. “It won’t work like that, it will be a very miserable experience for all of us.”

Some animal lovers said they are skeptical about zoos, of course, worrying that they exploit animals and keep them in conditions that only faintly resemble their natural habitat. But Sartore argued that zoos play an important role in species survival.

“There are some people that say, ‘Oh, why should we have zoos?’ “ Sartore said. “And I say, ‘Well, if you like a lot of these species, well, they’re only found in zoos now.’  They’re the real arks.”

KSL 5 TV Live

Local News

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, talking about the proposed changes that are happening to downt...

Carole Mikita and Michael Houck, KSL TV

‘This plan is ambitious’: Salt Lake County Mayor Wilson talks about the revitalization of Salt Lake City

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson spoke to KSL TV about all the proposed changes that could hit downtown Salt Lake City.

10 hours ago

A silhouetted man sitting in a chair on a phone call....

Matt Gephardt and Sloan Schrage, KSL TV

New federal data shows favorite methods of scammers targeting Utahns

Over 26,200 Utahns reported getting hit by fraud to the Federal Trade Commission last year. And one out of five of those Utahns lost money to imposters.

11 hours ago

The Salt Lake City Police Department is releasing the Utah driver license photo of Jordan Gonzales ...

Carlysle Price

SLCPD requested help finding a missing, at-risk man

The Salt Lake City Police Department said they are looking for information about a missing, at-risk man.

11 hours ago

Odin Meacham, a 30-year-old man from Duchesne County, was found guilty Monday on assaulting officer...

Emily Ashcraft, KSL.com

Utah man convicted of assaulting law enforcement at US Capitol on Jan. 6

A man from Utah has been found guilty of seven felonies for actions at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

12 hours ago

A Utah DPS helicopter helping Salt Lake County Search and Rescue getting a hiker off a mountain aft...

Michael Houck

A pair of Utah treasure hunters needed rescuing after getting hurt

Two hikers needed help getting off Lookout Peak after one hurt their leg while looking for treasure on Sunday morning. 

12 hours ago

Officials obtained video footage from Orem Recreation Center, and needs help identifying this suspe...

Carlysle Price and Brianna Chavez. KSL TV

Police working to identify Orem Recreation Center sexual assault suspect

Officials reported a man sexually assaulted someone at The Orem Recreation Center Wednesday afternoon. Police said they need help identifying the suspect.

13 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Photo courtesy of Artists of Ballet West...

Ballet West

The rising demand for ballet tickets: why they’re harder to get

Ballet West’s box office is experiencing demand they’ve never seen before, leaving many interested patrons unable to secure tickets they want.

Electrician repairing ceiling fan with lamps indoors...

Lighting Design

Stay cool this summer with ceiling fans

When used correctly, ceiling fans help circulate cool and warm air. They can also help you save on utilities.

Side view at diverse group of children sitting in row at school classroom and using laptops...

PC Laptops

5 internet safety tips for kids

Read these tips about internet safety for kids so that your children can use this tool for learning and discovery in positive ways.

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why printer security should be top of mind for your business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light up your home with these top lighting trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for hassle-free computer repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Wildlife Photographer’s ‘Photo Ark’ To Rescue Species Using Animal Portraits