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Photographer aims to save the world, one furry portrait at a time

Joel Sartore set out on an ambitious mission 10 years ago – to photograph every captive animal species in the world. Today, he has portraits of 5,400 different creatures, but his project is barely halfway complete. 

Earth is experiencing its most catastrophic wave of extinctions since the demise of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Half of the world’s plant and animal species may be extinct before the century is over, with dozens disappearing every day.

Amid the ongoing crisis, Joel Sartore is a photographer with a mission: He wants to document every captive animal species through the lens of his camera, all 12,000 of them. The project, titled Photo Ark, has collected images of more than 5,000 different species thus far, many of which are already iconic in the canon of modern photography.

“What I’m trying to explore or share is the fact that we are throwing away the ark,” Mr. Sartore said in a 2013 video for National Geographic. “My goal is to get people to wake up and say ‘Whoa, that’s amazing. What do I got to do to save that?’ and then they actually do save it.”

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His style is distinct and mesmerizing – a stark, personified portrait before a black or white background. Under luminous studio lighting, the critterly subjects evocatively gaze into the camera. A 9-week-old clouded leopard, mouth agape, playfully lying on its back. A winking ocelot. Two warthogs, gleefully posing side-by-side. A baby Bornean orangutan grasping its adoptive mother, the two nearly cheek-to-cheek.

The seasoned photographer has worked with National Geographic for more than 20 years, and Photo Ark began as mostly an accident. Ten years ago, his wife, Kathy, was diagnosed with breast cancer and he had to stay home in Lincoln, Neb., indefinitely. So, aching for work, he went to the local zoo and asked if he could photograph the animals. His first subject was the naked mole rat, and the rest was history.

Their eyes, Sartore says, are a critical focal point.

"If we can get down and look these species in the eye, really get down low and really look 'em in the eye, and you see how lovely they are and how much intelligence there is there," he told CBS News. "They're telling us something. I mean, they're shouting it to me."

But it’s not easy snapping the right shot. Sartore says he easily shoots around 30,000 photos every year, but only three or four are what he calls “keepers.” Since Photo Ark’s conception, Sartore has visited 200 zoos and aquariums in the US alone. The preparation can be arduous. The animals fidget, bite, defecate, or they simply scuttle or slither away.

In a December video on the pains of production, a stop-motion segment shows a particularly mischievous chimpanzee dismantling and then completely tearing away the white backdrop for his shoot.

Sartore’s Photo Ark portfolio is currently on view at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., and will be exhibited until April. Last month, his photos were projected on the side of the Vatican in light of the Paris Climate Talks.

Beyond tedium, the job isn’t without personal sacrifice.

“You miss birthdays and you miss holidays and you think of excuses, fancy excuses for why you missed your kid’s 8th birthday. Fancy excuses that mean nothing to your child,” Sartore said. “So why do it? Well, because we’re saving the Earth and all there is in it.”

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