National Geographic photographers saving the planet a click at a time



Three National Geographic photographers are out to save the world one click at a time.

If a picture is worth a thousand words then David Doubilet, David Liittschwager and Joel Sartore are writing the bible of environmental awareness.

The three photographers are the featured artists for FotoFest 2016 Biennial’s new exhibit, Changing Circumstances: Looking at the Future of the Planet. The exhibit is on display through April 24 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring St., Houston. They were also the guest speakers at a kickoff lecture March 16 at First Unitarian Universalist Church where the sanctuary was filled beyond capacity for the event.

I have to confess here that what drew me to the event was not so much a compulsion to save the environment but a fan boy desire to meet Sartore. He made the Fundamentals of Photography videos for National Geographic that completely re-invigorated my career. Although the video program is barely a blip on the radar of his work, it moved me off a decades-long plateau of photographic stagnation. I had to thank the man responsible for inspiring me to reach for a new level of photographic accomplishment.

National Geographic photographers David Doubilet, left, and David Liittschwager listen as colleague Joel Sartore answers questions from the audience March 16 during a lecture hosted by FotoFest 2016 Biennial at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston. Pictured on the left, Sartore visits with patrons after the lecture.

National Geographic photographers David Doubilet, left, and David Liittschwager listen as colleague Joel Sartore answers questions from the audience March 16 during a lecture hosted by FotoFest 2016 Biennial at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston.

Although that was my primary motivation for going, what I came away with was something that should light a fire under every human being. What they showed were stunning, colorful pictures of nature. Unfortunately, what they also showed in those brilliant photographs was a dying world – our world.

Although they provided ample photographic evidence of global warming or climate change (or whatever you want to call it), you don’t have to believe in it to believe what their pictures say. Coral reefs are dying. Whole species of wildlife are vanishing. Whether or not you believe climate change is manmade, natural or not happening, their message is compelling and undeniable.

In our lifetime, numerous species of animals, insects and other life forms will vanish forever from the face of the earth. Some of it can’t be stopped. A lot of it can be prevented. The feeling and the message I came away with Wednesday night wasn’t so much one of despair and lament over what has been lost but a reflection of the beauty that exists now in nature and a hope of preserving it.

This is what we have and it’s worth fighting for.

Sartore visits with patrons after the lecture.

Sartore visits with patrons after the lecture.

Doubilet presented a slide show about The Living Reef. It was spectacular. Rather than show images of decaying reefs, he focused on the splendor and beauty of the reefs that are growing and flourishing. His message was that those areas are becoming fewer and smaller. The pictures showed the delicate and frail details of the corals and the life they support.

Liittschwager is engaged in a rather curious project called One Cubic Foot. He made a box frame that is one cubic foot that he takes to biodiverse areas and photographs everything that comes into the box. That can be anything from bugs and plants to cute, furry creatures and beautiful birds. He, too, is seeing the negative impacts mankind is having on the environment. More importantly, his box opens a window to view what we still have.

It was Sartore’s presentation of his Photo Ark project that just floored me. It’s not that I was a little star struck at meeting someone I consider an e-mentor, and now a friend, but because his work is simplistic and fascinating and his message incredibly compelling.

Sartore has been with National Geographic for 25 years. He began the Photo Ark project 10 years ago. Most of his work is done at zoos and aquariums. He places blank white or black backgrounds behind his subjects so they become the entire focus of the image. Rather than doing nature photography, he is doing nature portraiture.

“People like the straightforward nature of it. It’s very straightforward and direct,” he said of using the blank backgrounds.

His work is breathtaking and next month the magazine will produce 10 different covers featuring his photos. I encourage you to check it out.

One of the things each of the photographers talked about was getting people inspired enough to care and take action. Colorful coral or cute, fuzzy critters get a lot of attention but not everything worth saving has that aw effect. Some of it causes the ew reflex.

“When that frog dies that’s it,” Sartore said while flashing a slide on the screen. “That’s the very last one and when it’s gone the species will be extinct.”

He said posting pictures of creepy-crawly things actually cost viewers on social media sites.

“Snakes count too, but boy is it tough to get the public to care about snakes,” he said.

He said people should pay attention to bugs as much as they do birds and bears.

“All these things have value. The little things have value and it’s the little critters that make the world go round,” he said.

He said people need to appreciate more than mammals.

“There’s nobody paying attention to slugs and snails and mice and bats,” he said. “It gets me psyched up.”

Of course, he photographs a lot of cute, beautiful creatures. He showed a video of one of his shoots where he struggled to photograph a very aggressive bird. While it got a lot of laughs, it wasn’t his most difficult shoot.

“Black-footed ferrets are tough because they never stop moving, ever!” he told me.

He hopes that by preserving the images of animals today that their memory – or even the animals themselves – will carry to the generations of tomorrow.

“What’s our reaction when a species dies? Not much. We lament the death but then we go out and do it all over again. … We’ll be sad for a little bit, but we’ll go out and do it over and over again,” he said.

Since he began the Photo Ark project, several species have vanished forever. Among them are the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit and the Chucky madtom, a small river fish.

One of the more notable species that will soon die off is the northern white rhino. The aging survivors are at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic.

He arrived and took photos of a sick rhino, one of four remaining in the world.

“We barely got its story told in time … she died a week after our visit due to a massive cyst rupture,” he said. “She died and now all we have is three and they’re too old to breed. And that’s how extinction happens.”

Not all of the animals he photographs are on the verge of extinction, but many are.

“We are on track to lose half of all the species you see here,” he told the crowd.

“Our generation, we’re the last to see a lot of these things. It’s the last time a guy can go around and capture a lot of these things,” Sartore said.

He said it’s the job of the photographer to do more than take pretty pictures.

“We have to make endangered species interesting,” he said. “We have to make it competitive with the Kim Kardashians of the world. We have to make it entertaining and fun to learn about species and learn about habitats.”

He urges people to talk about it because the politicians are not.

“Conservation is not being mentioned at all in the current political race, which is very annoying,” he said.

Sartore said people must act now or suffer the consequences.

“If we do not get the world’s attention quickly, in the next 10 years, 20 years, it’s going to be a very hot, miserable and impoverished world indeed,” he said.

He is a strong advocate of the work done by zoos and aquariums to preserve and protect endangered species. That work, however, doesn’t have to stop with trained professionals at those facilities.

“Think about what you can do,” he said. “Don’t leave here tonight and do nothing. Don’t just be entertained by pretty pictures, do something.”

I asked him what people can do and this is what he said:

“Check out the Photo Ark online, read, learn, get excited. Tell others that you care about the natural world. Support your local zoo. Watch how you spend your money, and what you consume. Your consumer choices have a much bigger impact in the Earth than you realize, from insulating your home well, to eating less meat, to the kind of car you drive. Study a little and save a lot I always say.”

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