Even as wasps crept up his sweat-soaked shirt in the sweltering Bolivian Amazon and left bitter pain lingering after their stingers pierced his ear canals, Joel Sartore didn’t surrender.
When the soles of his boots began to disintegrate in the lava-coated ground at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Sartore still got his shot.
“I kept those boots after all these years,” Sartore said.
Sartore, who is a Ralston native, does not shy away from adventure, but embraces it as a National Geographic photographer.
Sartore grew up on Park Lane and spent his young years in the halls of Seymour Elementary, Ralston Middle School and Ralston High School, graduating in 1980 from the latter.
He earned a degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, where his love of photography began and later went on to become the director of photography at a newspaper in Wichita, Kan.
Now, he travels the world in pursuit of saving creatures that inhabit it.
In 1991, Sartore started freelancing for National Geographic after James Stanfield, a seasoned National Geographic photographer, encouraged him to send his portfolio to the publication’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Since, he’s tackled stories not only across the country, but the world.
Fifteen years ago, after his wife Kathy was diagnosed with breast cancer, Sartore took some time off and stayed closer to his home in Lincoln.
During that year, Sartore said he thought a lot about his career and realized his passion is to bring awareness to endangered animals.
By founding Photo Ark, a 25-year documentary project to help save species and their habitats, Sartore said he hopes to make a positive impact on the environment.
After researching endangered animals and habitats, Sartore travels to the location and captures images of them firsthand.
“We hope to show people the world, animals from every continent and show them they are worth saving,” Sartore said.
After Sartore’s wife made a full recovery, he began to venture abroad to further his project. So far, Sartore has been to 40 countries in search of endangered species.
From Nebraska zoos to those in the Czech Republic and animal parks in Madagascar, his main objective is to educate the world on the importance of animals and hopefully derail their march to extinction.
Sartore photographs endangered species that are currently in captivity at zoos or wildlife reserves on white backgrounds to create calm settings as to not disturb or cause stress to the animals.
“It allows you to concentrate on looking at these animals in the eye and seeing the beauty there,” he said.
So far, Sartore has photographed about 10,000 species for the Photo Ark.
Large or small, Sartore believes every species is worth saving.
“A mouse can be every bit as big and important as an elephant,” he said. “I really like the fact that we get attention for some of the smaller species that nobody will ever know existed.”
In November, Sartore will travel to Indonesia to add rare birds and a Bornean rhino, also known as the Sumatran rhino, to the ark.
When it comes to species such as the Bornean rhino, which according to the World Wildlife Fund have fewer than 80 rhinos remaining, Sartore does not take his duties lightly.
“You know there is very little hope so you try to do an extra good job with those and inspire people to not let extinction happen,” he said. “People know all about tigers and gorillas and elk, but very few have heard about the other species and that’s where the Photo Ark really shines.”
Sartore spends about half the year traveling while the other half is spent at his home in Lincoln.
Even with his worldly excursions, Sartore still credits his success to his hometown.
“It’s all connected,” he said.
From the guy who managed the old barber shop to the hardware store manager just down the way, Sartore said the Ralston community helped prepare him for life.
“Ralston raised me,” he said. “It was a very nurturing place.
“They taught me how to value hard work and honesty and those things have stuck with me ever since.”
Before he looked into the eyes of a brown-throated, three-toed sloth through the lens of a camera in Panama, his first ever published photo was in the Ralston Recorder — a young girl enjoying an ice cream cone during the annual Independence Day celebration.
“That was the start of my career,” he said. “To say that I’m a big fan of Ralston, Neb., is an understatement.”
In addition to giving animals a voice, Sartore aspires to instill the value of curiosity to others.
“Be curious about other people’s lives and listen to their stories,” Sartore said. “That will help carry you a long way in life.”
For more information about Sartore and the Photo Ark Project, visit joelsartore.com.