Joel Sartore © Cole Sartore

“I’ve never had anybody [at National Geographic] tell me what to do. There’s never an agenda, I mean, never. They just let me go out and be a journalist. As long as I’m a responsible person and respect that, I’m okay, and that’s the way they expect us to be good, truth-telling journalists, and just to show what we see.”

Joel Sartore is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker, author, teacher, conservationist, National Geographic Fellow, and a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine. His hallmarks are a sense of humor and a Midwestern work ethic.

Joel specializes in documenting endangered species and landscapes in a way that draws attention to a world worth saving. He is the founder of The Photo Ark, a multiyear documentary project to bring awareness to endangered species, habitats, and the biodiversity necessary for healthy ecosystems. Joel has contributed to numerous magazines, books, and national broadcasts including National Geographic Explorer, NBC Nightly News, NPR, PBS, and CBS Sunday Morning.

He is always happy to return home to Lincoln, Nebraska to his wife and their three children.

Visit Joel’s website.

Coincidentally, Joel’s latest National Geographic Story on small cats features a friend and colleague of mine, Jim Sanderson, and the work of Global Wildlife Conservation in protecting endangered and forgotten species.

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On the power of photography

“It’s harder to lie with photos.”

“Even if you were to stitch one person’s head onto another person’s body, it’s easy to discern that, it’s easy to see that it’s fake. So people do have a visual sophistication about them as never before, and that plays to our advantage – if you’re a good journalist and you’re telling the world what’s going on. They can tell whether or not you’ve been truthful right off the bat.”

“The fastest thing on the web is a still photograph”

On journalistic rigor

“The first thing they teach you on the first day of [journalism] class is, spell people’s names right, because that’s the one thing people are going to care about the most, and you’re going to hear from them.”

On the importance of being a specialist

“Even the generalists are known for lighting things a certain way or having a certain style, so they specialize too. You better be really great at something if you want to be employable.”

On shooting for National Geographic

“I’ve never had anybody [at National Geographic] tell me what to do. There’s never an agenda, I mean, never. They just let me go out and be a journalist. As long as I’m a responsible person and respect that, I’m okay, and that’s the way they expect us to be good, truth-telling journalists, and just to show what we see.”

On the evolution of photography

“Am I angry that the web has reduced the number of print journalism jobs?” One, you can’t fight the tide, and two, there’s no way I’d want to go back. We can let the world know right away when there’s an environmental problem or when somebody does something very well and it’s something we’re celebrating.”

On the Photo Ark

“It was an 11-year overnight success.”

“A mouse is every bit as vital and interesting and big as an elephant on these backgrounds.”

“It’s the only chance they’re going to have to be seen alive looking good, and big, and beautiful.”

“I’m bummed continually that I didn’t start the project until I was half dead. I started it at 42. I should have started it at 20 but I just didn’t … It just took that long to come to me.”

“I would have encouraged myself to not worry about the money, and start shooting that project then.”

“It’s easy to be critical, it’s harder to do something positive and constructive”.

“There’s never been a better time to save species, because there’s never been so many on the ropes. But also people have a lot of information at their fingertips. They want to be heroes to themselves and their friends and family.”

On learning manmade light

“The lighting couldn’t have gotten any worse than it was at the start. I’d been shooting for the Geographic for 20 years almost and just didn’t really understand the properties of manmade light. I’m starting to learn that now. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m starting to learn it. I like the fact that photography’s very hard to master and it’s infinite in its variety. I like that.”

burcham-1“Hanging on a rope and shooting a rock climber, there’s a lot going on. You’re usually in pretty spectacular places. But to go meet and greet someone for the first time and bring home a good portrait, to me that’s more nerve-racking.”

John Burcham is most at home climbing new routes up the often fragile and absurd sandstone spires of Sedona, but has been adventuring and photographing since college. From his experiences working at a fish cannery to a decade spent living in Alaska, John has developed qualities that differentiate him from others in the field. His blue-collar work ethic and love for wild places allow him to capture still and moving images in exploration and adventure from otherwise inaccessible perspectives under grueling conditions. All the while, John smiles.

Whether he’s shooting high in the Himalayas, in a hospital operating room, or at a studio in town, John constantly engages with his collaborators, subjects, and environment. He has worked for healthcare and outdoor clients including National Geographic, The New York Times, the History Channel, Kahtoola Snowshoes, and Sherpa Adventure Gear.


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On pushing out of his comfort zone

“Hanging on a rope and shooting a rock climber, there’s a lot going on. You’re usually in pretty spectacular places, but to go meet and greet someone for the first time and bring home a good portrait, to me that’s more nerve-racking.”

On suffering and self doubt

“From my expeditions I learned it’s about being able to suffer. It’s work and it doesn’t stop. You sleep wondering if you got the shot. I don’t come home like, ‘Oh I’ve got it in the bag.'”

On getting THE photograph

 “You give [20 photographers] the same equipment, in the same room, to do a portrait, and you’re going to get 20 different photographs. Are two or three going to be better than the others? Yes. And then why are those better? Design is such a hard thing. How do you teach it? How do you learn from it? Because there isn’t a right answer.”

“Experience, no experience, there’s no right answer other than the photo. We all know when we see that. That photograph.”

On the importance of finding your own inspiration

“Like musicians try not to listen to too much, just get out and start creating. I’m trying to do more of that.”

On mentors

“I’d say going back I would definitely have wanted to learn more. Even back then, I should have learned lighting techniques, studied some of the other [photographers]. One of the big influencers was Galen Rowell back in the day. I’d read his book Mountain Light and that blew me away – it was a turning point… he was a huge mentor I think to all adventure photographers. He’s the man.”

“Video crews, they work together, and photographers have always been the lone artists. It’s fun when you can work with someone. You’re 2 people that can speak the same language, and I find that’s a good way to learn.”

On the importance of never stopping learning 

“that’s why I’ll never tire of it, because the learning curve never stops. It’s like an exploration.”