Review: The Photo Ark, Vanishing: The World’s Most Vulnerable Animals, by Joel Sartore


[1] “Do what you love” was Joel Sartore’s message to the Ralston High School graduating Class of 2000.  As a graduate of Ralston High himself, Sartore had returned to share his story about the importance and joy of following one’s dream.  By that time, Sartore was already a National Geographic photographer, so one could imagine that the spark to create the Photo Ark project was present when he spoke to the graduates in 2000.

[2] As founder of the National Geographic Photo Ark project, Sartore is living what he so passionately encouraged the Ralston Class of 2000 to pursue — “do what you love.”  I believe this guiding principle shines through Sartore’s work in the photography and rich layers of The Photo Ark.

[3] Sartore and National Geographic are in the 15th year of a 25 year project to travel around the world to create portraits of every animal species in human care today, species whose future is uncertain.  To date, Sartore has traveled to 40 countries and photographed more than 10,000 species. He shares nearly 300 of them in the Photo Ark, Vanishing.

[4] Sartore has created stunning portraits of animals whose essence and, in some cases, personalities shine through.   Each photo is accompanied by a brief narrative about the animal, its habitat and its international IUCN classification (e.g., Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable).  The solid black or white background of each portrait creates a dramatic photo which not only compels the viewer to focus directly on the animal, but also serves as a subtle reminder that its habitat is disappearing.

[5] The Photo Ark, Vanishing also tells a tragic story about the impact of logging, poaching, pathogens, climate change, over-fishing and acidification.   It helps us learn about the impact of palm oil production, folk remedies and rising seas, the true cost of coffee, the songbird crisis and the aftermath of mining.   All sobering stories whose challenges seem insurmountable.

[6] But Sartore believes there are actions and activities that give him “great hope” and which would allow us to turn things around.  The internet, Conservation Heroes, the EDGE Fellow initiative, are some of the strategies detailed, in addition to a host of actions that we could implement as individuals.  Sartore believes “the connectivity of the internet has the potential to let the world know about the biggest threats in real time.”   We learn about the people who Sartore calls “Conservation Heroes”- dedicated individuals whose careers are focused on “keeping the species of our planet alive, healthy, breeding, and in some cases, even strong enough to return to native habitats.” And then there are the National Geographic and Zoological Society of England EDGE Fellows who support on-the-ground conservation efforts to help save creatures featured in Photo Ark, Vanishing.

[7] The Photo Ark project takes on even greater significance and immediacy as we continue to learn of the loss of habitat and animals due to the fires in Australia.  Current estimates are that 1 billion animals have died and over 12 million acres have burned.

[8] It is clear that Sartore’s extraordinary commitment to the Photo Ark project is fueled by doing something he loves and that his institutional partner, National Geographic, has the same commitment.   This book is not only beautiful, but provides important and compelling statistics, resources and suggestions for action.   As Sartore says, “nature doesn’t need us, we need nature.”

Carolyn Roby is retired Senior Vice President of a large corporate philanthropic foundation and continues her work as an artist and community leader.

[9] A few words from the lens of a theologian:  These books make clear that the problems of the environment and the life it supports are vast. It is essential that we understand how these systems intersect so that we can best discern how to act effectively and quickly.  But recognizing the breadth and the interconnectedness of these issues can also be overwhelming, even immobilizing.  We ask ourselves, how are we to grasp the complexity of the issues and the immensity of the harm?  How, truly, do we grasp it, let alone act?  How do we avoid lapsing into numbness and fatalism?

[10] I would argue that Sartore’s book combats numbness.  It jolts us.  It returns us very simply to the individual.  To the individual whose eyes we cannot escape.  Whose demands pierce our soul.  It is the “face of the other” (a la Levinas) who calls to us, and indeed commands our attention.  If we believe, as did Luther, that God is everywhere present, including in nature, then can we open ourselves to see the face of God in each of these fellow creatures?

[11] Most certainly, this cry from our neighbor/creature is not the prescription for how to act, it is the call to act. It is the inspiration and motivation that turns us in hope to the resources that we once thought overwhelmed us.  In Sartore’s vision, what you love can change the world.

Nancy Arnison is a theologian and international human rights lawyer.

Nancy Arnison

Nancy Arnison is a lawyer, theologian and nonprofit executive and serves as the Book Review Editor for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. 

Carolyn Roby

Carolyn Roby is retired Senior Vice President of a large corporate philanthropic foundation and continues her work as an artist and community leader.