Looking into a tiger’s eyes is an unforgettable experience. They are beautiful, of course – the piercing black and blazing gold, “burning bright” as William Blake so perfectly put it centuries ago. Those wide eyes look straight into your centre, making you feel as though the jungle cat is summing you up, learning your secrets at a glance. At the same time, the gaze is fearsome – maybe the only thing he’s summing up is how quick a meal you’ll make. This beast can tear you to pieces in a matter of seconds, and a look into his eyes tells you that he’s quite aware of that fact too.
Each species is captured against a stark background of plain black or white.
Fortunately the eyes I’m looking into are not glimmering between the trees on a dark Bengal night: they’re looking out from the wall of Melbourne Zoo’s Leopard Lodge, where an exhibition of the work of American photographer Joel Sartore is currently showing. The tiger is one of several dozen striking images of animals gracing these walls, but the photos on display are but a tiny fraction of the work Sartore has put into this project: he’s photographed around 7,000 different species, and plans to capture about 5,000 more. He’s been at it for 11 years, and estimates it’ll be another 15 before he’s finished. Because this isn’t just a photoset: this is the Photo Ark, a grand undertaking that Sartore hopes will play a part in changing the way humanity interacts with animals; and help save the same animals he’s immortalising on film.
The Photo Ark’s ambition is as simple as it is overwhelming: to photograph one of every species held in captivity around the world: in total, around 12,000 animals.
Sartore hopes that, like its biblical namesake, the Photo Ark will help preserve the riches of the natural world for the future. It’s already having an impact, the images spreading around the world via social media: Sartore’s photos last year even made it to the Vatican’s website.
Visiting Australia to photograph a range of local species – in particular the rare Leadbeater’s possum, its close-up planned for a special session at Healesville Sanctuary – Sartore lays out his vision. “We want this to be something that inspires the world to take better care of the planet. We want people to become aware of the fact that as these species go away, so could we,” he says, going on to note the ways in which the fates of human and non-human animals intertwine: “We have to have pollinating insects to bring us fruits and vegetables. We have to have intact rainforests to moderate the rain that we get.” But the Photo Ark is also an act of documentation: as Sartore puts it, “a big archive of everything we’re gonna throw away.” He has terrifying numbers at his fingertips: a 50 percent reduction in the number of species on Earth by 2100 “if we don’t change our ways”.
In Satore’s shots a powerful sense of the connection between animals and us comes through, a feeling of familiarity and kinship with the subjects.
Those ways are tough to change. As the photographer remarks, “we’re animals ourselves, and we’re driven to exploit everything and use up all the resources we can”. If that animal nature is what drives us to continue our devastation of other species’ habitats around the globe, it is also a part of us that Sartore’s work appeals to: in his shots a powerful sense of the connection between animals and us comes through, a feeling of familiarity and kinship with the subjects. A Schmidt’s red-tailed guenon, a species of African monkey, looks at the camera with a quizzical expression, as if wondering what we’re playing at. A baby orangutan wraps an arm protectively around its mother, her eyes weary but contented a picture of familial love instantly relatable to any of us. Perhaps most evocative of all is the weeper capuchin, a South American monkey photographed at Panama’s Summit Zoo, which covers its face with a hand like a celebrity blocking the paparazzi. Such gestures are poignantly human – or perhaps they show our own mannerisms up as decidedly animalistic.
There is obviously a risk, when you anthropomorphise the animal kingdom, of losing sight of the true nature of each unique creature, rendering us unable to view them in any terms except our own. The three-toed sloth is most likely not really smiling at us. The Brazilian porcupine’s prim, hands-between-legs pose probably doesn’t indicate an urgent need for the restroom. The Syrian brown bear, staring at us with eyes of seemingly infinite sadness, surely is not ruminating on the looming threats to its species – bears’ eyes just look like that. But if the idiosyncrasies and personalities that these photos bring to life can make us feel closer to the animals in any way – and thereby care more for their fate – then any incidental anthropomorphism is surely worth it.
Sartore has managed to make eye contact, so the animals look straight at us.
It is those personalities that the pictures are designed to highlight. Sartore does not photograph animals in jungle settings or before savannah landscapes: each species is captured against a stark background of plain black or white, the blank space putting emphasis where it needs to be: on the shape, the features, the expression of the animal in question. As the Photo Ark website puts it, the plain backdrops “level the playing field, making a mouse every bit as grand as an elephant”. In most cases – shy capuchins aside – Sartore has managed to make eye contact, so the animals look straight at us, heightening the sense that what we are viewing is a silent appeal to our better natures, a plea for assistance from our wild cousins.
Sartore’s work may not find favour with all animal-lovers: there are those who object to the very idea of holding animals in captivity, and condemn zoos as inhumane by definition. Sartore, bent on finding a way to save the thousands of species threatened by human activity, isn’t having it. “A lot of the animals I photograph would be extinct if not for the efforts of zoos to save their habitat and do captive breeding.”
He gives a shout-out to the “fantastic” Zoos Victoria for their Not On Our Watch campaign, which has named 21 endangered species in south-eastern Australia that they have determined to do everything to keep alive. “More zoos are doing that now,” Sartore emphasises, “because they are conservation centres now. Zoos not just menageries anymore, they’re literally breeding and saving species now – they are the Ark.” He also lauds the educational aspect of zoos: “They’re getting kids to engage in actually seeing and smelling and hearing and sometimes touching the animals – and that changes them. What I worry about is the day when people only know animals through their smartphones. When that day comes they’re not going to do anything to save the wild.”
It’s an important point – without zoos, the vast majority of Australians would never have the chance to see a lion, an elephant, or a gorilla in the flesh. And seeing these astounding creatures up close gives a person a vastly different perspective on the need to preserve them.
His skills, honed over 25 years in the field for National Geographic, chasing perfect shots of both animals and humans in their natural environment.
Sartore isn’t just an activist: he’s an artist, and there’s true artistry in the way in which he causes his subjects to leap from the surface, eyes wide, fur and feathers bristling, tooth and claw at the ready. Although he has already been working on the Ark for more than a decade, and expects it won’t be finished until he’s 70, he has no intention of passing the baton on to another photographer, because he has the routine down: get the animal into the room against the backdrop – for small animals simple, for larger ones necessitating the strategic deployment of food – take the shots, get it out again. No one can do it with his speed and efficiency, which are important factors when you’ve got a few thousand more appointments coming up. For an artist, Sartore has found what can be a blessing and a curse: a higher purpose. His skills, honed over 25 years in the field for National Geographic, chasing perfect shots of both animals and humans in their natural environment, and risking life and limb in doing so (being chased by a grizzly bear, he says, is “not as scary as being chased by a guy with a gun”), are now being put to use not just to create stunning images, but to change the world.
It’s an exhausting, exhilarating calling, and Sartore has already committed the rest of his working life to this singular purpose. In the end, what he is striving for is a body of work that can persuade the rest of us to acquire a little bit of the spirit that inspired him to embark on this journey in the first place: to care. Above all, the Photo Ark begs us to care: its creator implores us, having looked into the eyes of our earthly co-tenants, to demonstrate a will to change in whatever way we can; to think about how much we consume, what products we purchase, how we vote. Even as minor an act as keeping your cat indoors, Sartore points out, can have an impact: cats take an immense toll on native wildlife. “There’s a thousand things people can do every year to make the planet better”. Including becoming a zoo member: he is at pains to mention the work being done here by Zoos Victoria in conservation and educating the public.
In a world where it’s far easier to remain detached from nature than to connect with it, the Photo Ark is a vivid reminder, not just of the dazzling beauty of the animal kingdom, but of just our own species place within it, and the clear and present danger that, if we don’t take speedy action, photographs might be all we have left, and those mesmerising tiger’s eyes will strike us only from a picture on a wall.
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The National Geographic Photo Ark exhibition is on at Melbourne Zoo until October 1. Find out more at joelsartore.com