Ponca City, Oklahoma, might not, at first glance, seem like a fertile breeding ground for a world-class photographer. But Joel Sartore, who was born there in 1962, believes it forced him to develop a good eye for stories in a place less visually loaded than a city like New York. After studying photography and journalism at the University of Nebraska, he worked at the Wichita Eagle before being hired by National Geographic magazine. His powerful, intimate photographs of endangered species—like the ivory-billed woodpecker, which he shot for the magazine in 2006—have garnered numerous awards. More importantly, they are Joel’s way of giving these creatures a voice and trying to capture people’s attention, and affections, so that they can be saved.
Q & A
You have written that you love photography because it stops time. Unpack that idea for us.
It’s the only thing I know that freezes time. That ability allows us to create iconic images that go beyond the original situation. If you look at the iconic images we know and love, if you were there at the time, you might not think that much of them. But because the photographer has seen something in a unique way, or captured a great moment, it lives on. Henri Cartier Bresson’s picture of a man leaping over a muddy puddle is a classic example. And you never know where that moment will come from.
Many of your photos are of endangered species. Why is that important to you?
We’re on track to lose half of all species by the turn of the century. I don’t think that can happen without it having dire consequences for humanity. If you want to think of it selfishly, we need bees and all sorts of insects to produce fruits and vegetables; we need intact rain forests to regulate our climate and provide rainfall in places where we grow crops. It’s critical for people to realize that we’re all connected. The plight of endangered species is such a life-and-death drama that it’s my best hope to get the public to sit up and finally pay attention to what’s happening to the natural world.
A still photograph is very powerful. It has the ability to change culture. We’ve seen that many times, whether it’s turning public opinion against a war or aiding in alleviating suffering due to poverty. If an animal is extremely attractive and the public loves it, it’s more likely to be saved, thanks largely to photographs. Look at the giant panda. That animal is beloved in China and the rest of the world, and its population is stable due to heroic efforts to breed it back from the brink of extinction. The visuals matter to people.
National Geographic Image Collection Interview With Joel Sartore By Simon Worrall