Joel Sartore’s Photographs Portray the World’s Biodiverse Extinction Crisis by Chaney Giordano
“The goal of the Photo Ark is simple; show what’s at stake, and get people to care – while there’s still time.” These words are painted onto the wall in Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark, on exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. Walking through the rooms of this exhibit, what’s at stake is clear. Portraits of thousands of species line the walls. The magnificence of the world’s biodiversity couldn’t be more evident, and Sartore is eager to tell people that it could all be lost. What’s less clear is a solution, but the empathy garnered and conversation sparked by this project is an excellent place to begin.
Throughout the rooms of the Photo Ark exhibit, Sartore weaves a narrative through which connections are created and felt. Every portrait in the exhibit is photographed on a simple black or white background, leaving viewers to focus on the subject; looking each animal in the eye. They lock their gaze on a charismatic Coquerel’s Sifaka, see baby Koalas climbing on their mother’s back, and notice that the Weeper Capuchin has fingerprints and fingernails, just like us. Finding parts of themselves in each portrait, a couple giggles as they search for their spirit animals among the photos.
Other threads of the narrative are somber— the dim lighting and few photos in one room indicate that something serious is taking place. “Do you know why it is so important to save animals from going extinct?” A mother whispers to her son. He shakes his head no, his big brown eyes locked on the portrait before him. A mother and baby orangutan stare back at him. His mother explains that there is a balance in nature that is our responsibility to maintain. He reads further learning that there are only about 7,000 Sumatran orangutans left on the planet.
The flowing white curtains of the next room are reminiscent of a church chapel, a sacred space. Each of the few species presented is “past the point of no return.” A Northern White Rhinoceros, one of only five left of her kind, died a week after her photo session with Sartore. With her death, hope for her species’ survival also died. The room serves as a memorial and a place of mourning. Viewers are quiet, not a word is spoken. A man exiting to the next room whispers, “that gave me chills.”
In the final exhibit space, Sartore lifts viewers back up. The conservation success stories he presents remind the viewers that it isn’t too late. Under huge portraits, species’ all time population lows are presented next to current population numbers. A majestic Mexican Grey Wolf reveals that, after dwindling to about 5 individuals in 1977, its numbers are now over 100. A species that was all but gone now has hope.
A little girl wonders aloud how she can “help save the animals”— revealing the potential for change engendered by the exhibition. Sartore’s art may not tell us exactly how to save the many threatened species, but it sparks the conversation. And that conversation is arming the next generation with the conviction to take action that is needed to put an end to the mass extinction crisis.
Photo Ark will be at the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C. until April 10, 2016.
Chaney Giordano is a Baltimore-based writer, traveler, beachgoer, outdoors lover, and adventure seeker.