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 longtime wildlife photographer for National Geographic.
The goal of his “Photo Ark” project is to capture a single portrait of every species that’s currently in human care around the world. He estimates there are between 15,000 and 17,000 species in zoos, aquariums and other private facilities, all fair game for his camera and for the project.
“We photograph rare or common animals, big or small, from elephants to ants.”
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 bit as 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, there’s 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 enters, the scene looks a bit like a movie star angered by paparazzi. The chimp glances at the camera, bares his teeth and then yanks 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 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 argues 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.”