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National Geographic Photographers Suffer for Their Art and the Planet

“Yes we show the problems, but there is more to the world than that,” Joel Sartore told a rapt audience at the Aspen Environment Forum in late June, as he showed his stunning photos of both environmental harm and majestic beauty. Sartore, a long-time nature photographer, has produced more than 30 stories for National Geographic,...

Joel Sartore. Photo: Joel Sartore

“Yes we show the problems, but there is more to the world than that,” Joel Sartore told a rapt audience at the Aspen Environment Forum in late June, as he showed his stunning photos of both environmental harm and majestic beauty.

Sartore, a long-time nature photographer, has produced more than 30 stories for National Geographic, from all over the world. He has documented everything from koalas in Australia killed by pet dogs and encroaching roadways to Africa’s unique Albertine Rift.  Over the past few years, Sartore has been making a series of beautiful, haunting portraits of some of the world’s most endangered species in a project he calls the Photo Ark.

Sartore told the crowd at the Aspen Institute that he worked hard to select just the right music for his mesmerizing short film “The Snake Show,” which documents a “rattlesnake roundup” in Oklahoma through more than twenty thousand still photographs. He said he wanted to add interest to the images of reptiles and people handling them, without portraying them in a positive or negative light.

“My goal is to show viewers what’s going on and let everyone make up their own minds as to whether it’s right, wrong, or somewhere in between,” Sartore said.

Sartore says his goal is to make images of a “world worth saving.” To do that for one National Geographic article, he told the crowd in Colorado that he shoots 30-40,000 frames.

Making Sacrifices

Sartore showed a picture of his feet covered in insects, which made the crowd gasp.

During his presentation earlier at the Aspen Environment Forum, fellow National Geographic photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols shared a video clip of himself working in a rainforest—and also swarmed by pesky bugs.

“The bees are flying in one side of my head and out the other,” Nichols joked.

Photo: Nick Nichols
Michael "Nick" Nichols. Photo: Mark Thiessen

Over the course of a 30-year career in photojournalism, Nichols has had to work under some challenging conditions, from sweltering swamps to frigid plains above the Artic Circle. He said he once drank his own urine by mistake out of exhaustion, and once a tiger peed on his blind. He has had malaria several times, as well as typhoid and hepatitis. He has had five knee surgeries, several as a result of accidents on the job.

“Not sure if I can keep doing it,” Nichols said.

Nichols also gave a sense of the painstaking amount of time it takes to capture an image for National Geographic. “After spending 15 days in a blind I saw tigers for 15 seconds,” he said. Suggesting how difficult it is to work in low light in the field, he added, “I shot five rolls of film of a tree that I mistakenly thought was a tiger.”

Yet both Sartore and Nichols told the crowd that they feel blessed to do what they do, and neither would ask for any other life. “There’s nothing like being in a forest where tigers walk. Your hair stands on end,” Nichols said.

Making an Impact

Sartore and Nichols have also seen considerable impact from their work. Sartore’s pictures of dead koalas helped motivate the Australian government to take more steps to preserve their habitat.

Nichols’ photos documenting Mike Fay’s Megatransect across Congo and Gabon helped raise $65 million for the establishment of 13 new national parks in West Africa. Fay, a conservation biologist, walked 2,000 miles over 467 days, from the deep forest to the coast. The team brought to light staggering wildlife diversity, as well as encroaching threats.

After he showed some particularly poignant photos of pygmy peoples encountered on that long walk, Nichols reflected, “Their culture is gone now.” Nichols said that there hasn’t been enough funding to police all the new parks, and so cultures are getting assimilated and animals are getting hunted out.

Photo: Rare by Joel Sartore book cover“Elephants are dying at unbelievable rates in these parks,” said Nichols.

In Chad, Nichols documented a group of elephants that had numbered 3,600 strong. He said the group had swelled so large, uncharacteristic for the giant mammal, because the elephants were banding together out of fear over constant hunting pressure. But in short time, that population became reduced to only 600 elephants, with those remaining mostly small, young animals with short tusks.

Later, Nichols told NewsWatch, “Those remaining are the ones that haven’t been shot yet. They are killing them even for those tiny tusks.”

“The whole point with these pictures is to set the hook because we gotta stop this,” said Nichols, referring to his goal of raising awareness.

In a lighter moment, Nichols clicked on a picture he made on a Gabon beach during the Megatransect that showed a hippopotamus seemingly playing in the waves. “Surfing hippo couldn’t be a better name for a rock band,” Nichols joked.

Photo: Nick Nichols ipad app“Keep Fighting”

“People ask if you get discouraged, and I say ‘No, we’re always going to keep fighting,’” Nichols said. “Other things on our planet have a right to be here.”

While showing intimate, studio-style portraits of endangered animals, some published in his recent book Rare, Sartore pointed out that some of the creatures staring back at the crowd have since gone extinct since he clicked his shutter. A few have also been saved, nursed back to a healthier number, in some cases by the efforts of a single caring person.

“There’s not a whole lot needed for a lot of these species, someone just needs to pay attention,” said Sartore. “Nature will always thrive if we give it some slack.”

It isn’t easy being a National Geographic nature photographer, but there are few jobs that are more rewarding.

Check out the work of Joel Sartore and Nick Nichols in National Geographic’s Field Test. Also check out Joel Sartore’s website and Nick Nichols’ website.


Brian Clark Howard is an Environment Writer and Editor at National Geographic News. He previously served as an editor for and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for,,, Yahoo!, MSN, Miller-McCune and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen Lighting and Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.

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