Photographer Joel Sartore had a very unassuming appearance compared to the introduction he was given. Kathy Moran, the Senior Editor of Natural History at National Geographic and Sartore’s long-term editor, stood in front of a packed house at Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater and spoke of how Sartore personified the idea that “it is not how you do it, but that you do it.” She commended his artistry, his passion and success in animal and environmental conservation, and, above all, his unwavering love and dedication to his family and career. Despite the occasional kindhearted jest at some personal flaws (he apparently “dumped” her on their first project together in favor of a higher paying gig), Moran evidently held Sartore in the highest regard. After this introduction I was expecting a photographing superhero to emerge onstage. However, the man that came onstage had the same appearance and air of a friendly next-door neighbor. Sartore was completely at ease; it was as if there were only an audience of five people sitting in front of him instead of a hundred. Given that he is a professional photographer for National Geographic, I assumed that Sartore was going to speak primarily on the technical aspects of photography and on conservationism. But then again, we all know what they say about assuming.
Sartore was surprisingly optimistic for a man who spends his time photographing animals that are on the endangered species list. In 2012, for example, Sartore covered a story on the rapidly declining koala population in northern Australia. With increasing urbanization, the koala’s natural habitat was diminishing at alarming rates and, although Sartore was not to the first to notice it, he was one of the leading figures to bring national and global awareness to the situation. Sartore initially spoke about the koala community with kindheartedness; he spoke about the “cuddle-factor” of koalas and showed a photograph of a woman brushing her teeth, a koala perched on her back. He switched to an image of a koala clinging to a tree with a supermarket a mere hundred feet in the distance. The images were harmless, almost sweet. A koala right in your backyard? How precious! The crowd at The Paramount sighed with delight at images of precious baby koalas clinging to their human caregivers. That is, until Sartore started showing less heartwarming photos. The crowd grew silent at the sight of dozens of koalas that were killed by cars or dogs; deaths that would have been reduced if not completely eradicated had the koala’s natural habitat remained intact. These images were no longer harmless or sweet—they were explicitly horrifying and heartbreaking. But Sartore pushed on through his talk. It soon became clear to me that his intent was not to bring the audience down, but rather show that the acts of one individual can drastically impact a community. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, whether that impact is negative or positive is similarly determined by individuals.
However, Sartore also made it clear that it was not his intent to simply stand in front of a packed house at The Paramount and talk about animal and environmental conservation. In fact, much of his talk focused on his own family, on living life, and pursuing passions. Sartore’s reflections on his wife in particular and her battle with breast cancer nearly brought me to tears. He spoke without reservation on the struggles that his family faced during his wife’s diagnosis and treatment but, with his seemingly indestructible optimism, he ended with this thought:
“In the end, each of us has so little time. We have less of it than we can possibly imagine. And even though it turns out that Kathy’s cancer has not spread, and her prognosis is good, we try to make it all count now, appreciating every part of every day. Sometimes we sit together on our porch at sunset. We don’t talk. We just hold hands. We listen to the crickets chirp, soft and cautious, as if they know that first frost might come tonight. We stay awhile, until the last of the light is gone, until we can’t see anything. Until we’re just two hearts in the darkness. We’re in no hurry at all.”
What was so inspiring about Sartore’s personal and professional journeys was his unwavering dedication to communities; communities that ranged from his family, to wildlife communities, and ultimately the global community. Sartore showed concern and compassion for each group with equal enthusiasm and dedication. Although Sartore’s photographs were certainly striking, he made sure to note that these photographs meant nothing without communities; that each photograph is about the community that is both shown in the photograph and the members of the community who look at the photograph. Photography is symbiotic artistry after all, for what good is a photograph if no one sees it?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “community” as “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common” or “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” From this definition it is sometimes hard to remember that human communities and animal communities are interdependent since relating one’s own existence to a field mouse, tree frog, or insect is hardly an easy task. What Sartore asked of the audience then was to both literally and figuratively visualize the importance of a community that is perhaps greater than our immediate groups of friends and neighbors. Your community might live in the same place as a community of red-headed woodpeckers and, although you may not have common attitudes, interests, and goals, you can cultivate feelings of fellowship. When discussing the reintegration of a previously endangered beetle back into the wild, for instance, Sartore noted that he didn’t initially see the need in building the species back up; what significance did this beetle have anyway in relation to his own community? It was just one of a thousand insects in the area. “Then again,” he observed, “what is the significance of a person? We’re just one in billions.”
It seems that what Sartore ultimately embodies is the idea that you are only as great as the people you surround yourself with; whether that community is comprised of two-legged or four-legged friends is essentially irrelevant. Success, wealth, and fame are all noble pursuits if done for the right reasons, but Sartore’s personal reflections on his own career brought to light that success, wealth, and fame mean nothing if you have no one to share it with. While we often think about sharing ourselves with members of other human communities, we can often forget that other communities matter too. And, thankfully, we have people like Joel Sartore to remind us that all types of communities matter. As Kathy Moran observed, it does not matter how you do it, but that you do it. So if you see a problem in the world: try to change it. If you have a passion: throw yourself into it. If you live in a community: become a part of it.
Want to know more about Joel Sartore? Visit his website here to learn more about his photography and conservation projects. Or click here to learn about Joel’s latest book project, Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species.