Picture of a red and brown centipede on a black background

Episode 6: Joel Sartore wants to save the creepy-crawlies

Ugly insects get ready for their close-ups after COVID-19 inspires photographer Joel Sartore to focus on the bugs in his own backyard.

A common desert centipede, Scolopendra polymorpha, caught from the wild.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, Nat Geo Photo Ark

Joel Sartore has been called a modern Noah for his work on the Photo Ark, a photography project with a simple mission: Get people to care that we could lose half of all species by the turn of the next century. He photographs animals on simple backgrounds, highlighting their power, their beauty, and often their cuteness. But while quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic, he turned to the animals in his own backyard: creepy-crawly bugs. Can his photography save them too?


JOEL SARTORE (PHOTOGRAPHER): Well, the first couple months of the lockdown, I was just kind of bummed out. It was like March, April. I wasn't sleeping that well, you know. There are so many places I need to go, and I couldn't go anywhere.

AMY BRIGGS (HOST): This is National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore. And like so many people across the world in spring 2020, he found himself stuck at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This situation was really frustrating because Joel is in a race against time.

For the past 15 years, Joel’s been working on photographing every animal species living in captivity all over the world.

The project is called the Photo Ark, and before COVID hit, he had photographed more than 10,000 animals.

Some of these species are rare. Some are endangered. And some are on the cusp of vanishing.

So being grounded by the pandemic brought the Photo Ark to a halt, until one morning.

SARTORE: And I went out to get my newspaper. It was in the dark. And the newspaper comes early here, and I turned around, was walking back to my porch. And I have these porch lights, and there were just hundreds of insects swarming around my porch lights one night.

BRIGGS: In those dark hours before dawn, Joel could see moths and other bugs zooming around that light.

SARTORE: And I thought, you know, here's a lot of biodiversity right here. Why don't I document this?

BRIGGS: So Joel adjusted the parameters for the Photo Ark, and widened his scope to include some creatures in the wild.

Instead of visiting animals around the world, he’d get familiar with the ones right in his backyard: the bugs.

Though we often take them for granted, insects run our world.

We depend on them to pollinate our food. You might not know it, but they’re responsible for one in three bites [of food]!

That’s not the only way they keep our world running.

SARTORE: They help keep the Earth cleaned up. They eliminate disease because they're such great scavengers. They’re the base of the food chain for most other animals. We could not live without insects. So they're not just pests to be killed with Raid. You know, they're a lot more than that.

BRIGGS: But this base of the animal kingdom is disappearing. Insects face an extinction rate more than eight times that of mammals, birds, and reptiles.

But what if we could see these animals up close, for what they really are? Would that help us recognize something about them, when they’re buzzing around our heads or crawling through the basement?

I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and you’re listening to Overheard–a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo, and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. 

This week, the photographer who’s traveled the world documenting its animals looks closer to home, with hopes that photographing our creepy-crawly neighbors up close will make us want to save them.

More after the break.

BRIGGS: Joel and his wife, Kathy, used to have an arrangement: While he traveled the world as a photographer for National Geographic, she managed the home front.

SARTORE: Really, I was gone all the time.

BRIGGS: But then in November 2005, Kathy was diagnosed with breast cancer. What followed was a year of chemo, radiation, and two operations.

SARTORE: I came home. We had three young children. The youngest one was two. And I don't think I'd ever changed the diaper on him.

BRIGGS: For a year, Joel hit the brakes. He stopped going out into the field, and he said it was a good time to think.

SARTORE: And during that time I thought, Well, I'm 42 years old now. Do I want to just keep doing magazine stories and be gone all the time?

BRIGGS: He thought about the people who inspired him, like John Audubon, an ornithologist who painted birds that have since become extinct. Audubon’s work preserved these animals who might have otherwise disappeared from our memory.

And that gave Joel an idea:

SARTORE: So I'd met so many little animals that were not going to make it if they didn't get attention—that I thought we need something that really draws attention to all these “least among us” species, like toads and sparrows and newts and salamanders and insects. We really do need somebody to give them a voice too.

BRIGGS: One day Joel called up his friend, the president of the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, and he asked if he could take some portraits of some animals. It was located close enough to home, so Joel could go there and be back in a few hours.

And the zoo said, sure.

So for the first photo session, everything was set up in the zoo’s kitchen, and Joel had asked that the first critter was one who could hold still.

SARTORE: I just, you know, did a naked mole rat on a white cutting board in the kitchen because they don't move much—they're kind of blind.

BRIGGS: That first photo was the beginning of the Photo Ark, now in its 15th year.

SARTORE: When I started, I was just kind of doing that to document whatever I could—kind of to have something to do that I knew wouldn't take me away to Africa for weeks, you know. So that worked into the Photo Ark.

BRIGGS: The project’s goal? to photograph all animals living in captivity–from zoos and wildlife sanctuaries to rehab centers and even private collections.

Joel has taken pictures of small animals–a Cumberlandian combshell mussel, the Key Largo cotton mouse, and a Japanese trapdoor snail. He’s taken photos of large animals too–lions and tigers and bears, and even whales.

And when he can, Joel records video for the ark as well.

[Northern guiña sound]

That’s a northern guiña, a type of South American wildcat. It looks a lot like a pudgy cheetah cub. Those little “chirrups and pirrups” mean he’s excited. If he’s announcing his presence, his meows sound like my housecats. 

But let’s see if you can guess this one. 

[Brown hyena sound]

So we usually associate them with laughing, but this sound comes from a shaggy-coated brown hyena, the rarest of the hyena species. 

The Photo Ark project has its own website (there’s a link in the show notes), and you can see Joel’s photographs and videos any time.

Let me warn you: It’s easy to spend hours there.

The photographs are truly amazing. You can see every whisker, every feathers, and every claw—all up close and personal. Each photo captures unique moments when the animal’s true personality is on display.

SARTORE: A lot of times these species we photograph, they're the only good images that exist of them. Some of them have never been photographed at all.

BRIGGS: Joel had to develop a consistent approach to photographing each animal.

First, each animal is placed in front of a black and a white background. Large animals are photographed in their enclosures, or brought into a room that’s painted white, or draped with a backdrop.

SARTORE: And they explore this white room that we put them in—this white tent. If they're small, they probably think they've been abducted by the mothership or something like that. They wander around. But they’re very smart. And they very soon learn that, you know, all the action’s up front where the little lens is that we stick into the front of the tent, and they just kind of—a lot of them center themselves and look into the lens and just wonder if they're if there's a peanut in it for them.

BRIGGS: The easy shoots take as little as 30 seconds—and the difficult ones? Well, they can take a little longer. I bet you’re wondering which ones cause the most trouble.

SARTORE: Well, chimps. Chimps aren't very fun. They're smarter than I am. They're fast, aggressive. They can be kind of mean. They can also be very joyous and playful too. But with me, you know, I tried using a really heavy paper, with like really strong duct tape, and they ripped that down in about one second, never even stepped onto it. So—and we tried painting a white room at a zoo, and the chimp just sat by the camera opening, you know, so I couldn't really put my camera in there because he'd just whack it. So I still don't have a good picture of an adult chimp. That's kind of my white whale, I guess.

BRIGGS: There's something so delightful about the one that's the most problematic is our closest relative. 

SARTORE: Yes, that's right. Well, definitely. I mean, they're just not having it. And I'm not really working with trained animals much. I suppose I could just go hire some chimp somewhere that's used in the movies. But what fun would that be? 

BRIGGS: Joel and his team size photographs so that all critters—from tiny lizards to big cats—look the same size.

SARTORE: A mouse counts as much as an elephant. They're both the same size. There's no size comparison,and we use studio lighting to bring out true colors and really get a good look at animals that you really couldn't see before. They're small, they're overlooked. They live in muddy water in the soil, or high up in trees. 

BRIGGS: Have there been any animals that particularly have loved the camera or warmed right up to it?

SARTORE: Oh, yeah. I mean, you see a lot of these animals are born and raised in human care. So they're really used to people, and a lot of animals will eat during the shoot. But most animals, most animals, Amy, are smart. I mean, they know we're not out to harm them.

BRIGGS: There are still more than 10,000 animals in captivity that Joel hasn’t photographed yet. He’s covered most of the ones in North America already.

SARTORE: So we have to go farther to get fewer now. But [National] Geographic Society really backs us well, grant-funds us. So we'll get there. I mean, I can definitely see light at the end of the tunnel now. 

BRIGGS: Amidst all this fun, the larger point of Joel’s work can sometimes get lost. If these animals disappear like some of Audubon's birds did, the Photo Ark will be the only way people can see them. Joel photographed one of the last northern white rhinos on Earth. She died one week after Joel took her portrait.

Before COVID, Joel did photograph colorful beetles and creepy mantises as part of the Photo Ark, but these guys were in captivity.

SARTORE: Insects were important to be represented in the Photo Ark. And all I'd done up to that point were colorful beetles and butterflies and walking sticks that I'd gotten at zoos—that they keep because they're very interesting. We did a lot of the small things that people really don't ever think about, and they're important too. I mean, they're probably more important because they help keep our crops going. They eat other insect pests. They feed birds, they feed bats. They really help keep the planet turning.

BRIGGS: Joel says it’s challenging to get people to care about animals that are small, slimy, or can sting.

SARTORE: And if something big goes away like a type of rhino or tiger, then the world gets really worked up, and we offer, you know, very eloquent eulogies and move on. Well, it's happening now more and more every day with insects. And soon it'll be happening to bigger animals. And then we're a big animal. It could happen to us. 

BRIGGS: During COVID-19, Joel’s time at home in Nebraska meant he needed to revise his Photo Ark approach. The bugs he was photographing this time were in the wild, not in a zoo. 

So he started out simple: catch a bug, put it into a jar, set it against backdrop, and photograph it. After its moment in the spotlight, release the bug back into the wild.

Pretty soon, Joel started thinking outside his Nebraska backyard. Where could he go next?

SARTORE: And then I thought, you know, I've got a generator. We could go out to this little acreage we own that has a farm pond, 20 minutes from Lincoln. So then we did that for a few nights. And I thought, Why don't we go across the river into Iowa. And then I thought, Northern Kansas: I can get down there and back in a day. So I did that.  

BRIGGS: And soon, Joel, along with two of his kids, Ellen and Spencer, set out together. They visited six states, photographing bugs on forests, prairies, and farmlands.

They took the usual photography kit with them with some special additions: sweep nets to capture bugs, big white sheets to hang, and a wide array of lights for nighttime sessions: UV lights, mercury lights, tungsten lights, even lights he found years ago at an old gas station. Each one shines a different wavelength of light.

SARTORE: And each wavelength would bring in different insects.

BRIGGS: When they were done, Joel and his team ended up photographing around a thousand critters.

One turned out to be pretty special—a species that had never been photographed alive before, called the long-toothed dart moth.

SARTORE: I didn't know it at the time, it just looked like another brown moth to me. But I let it go. It was handsome, had little dart patterns on its back, but I let it go into the night air outside of Santa Fe, and it flew off. But it turned out to be a big deal.

BRIGGS: Joel sent the photo to an entomologist named Bob Biagi, who runs a website called BugGuide. And here was his response.

SARTORE: We've been waiting for your photograph for 130 years, Joel—because it was described in 1890 and that was it, in terms of a live one. 

BRIGGS: The moth is pretty unassuming the first time you see its photo. It looks small and brown—kind of dusty.

But the closer you look, the more intricate its markings become. The moth’s wings are covered in featherlike scales that form patterns to help the dart moth camouflage itself.

All of Joel’s insect photographs have this incredible level of detail, revealing the complexity of the bug world.

SARTORE: I'm astounded all the time when I look at them. And the fact is, have human beings ever built a machine as complicated as a spider or a fly, just in terms of their ability to find food, to get out of bad weather, to avoid predators, to, you know, to just have a sense of the world around them and make it through time—millions of years? I don't think so. So I have a lot of respect for them. And that's how I spent the pandemic. And it went on until late October. And I'm glad I did.

BRIGGS: And whether Joel knew it or not, he was following in the footsteps of a husband-and-wife team who also photographed bugs in their backyard— a hundred years earlier.

(To Turqman) Ah, it’s the library smell. I love library smell.

MAGGIE TURQMAN (LIBRARY DIRECTOR, NG): Yay. It’s so good to see you guys.

BRIGGS: Good to see you too. 

BRIGGS: After COVID-19 kept me at home for a year, as part of this story, I got to go back to one of my favorite places at National Geographic headquarters: the library. I was searching for a hundred-year-old book, kind of an ancestor to the Photo Ark.

And what is a library without its librarian?

TURQMAN: I'm Maggie Turqman. And I'm the library director here at the National Geographic library and archives.

BRIGGS: OK, so what are you going to show us today? 

TURQMAN: We are going to look at the Book of Monsters.

BRIGGS: You heard her correctly: The Book of Monsters.

A long time ago, when I first started working at Nat Geo, I came across a copy of this book. It was an old book—red cloth hardcover with “Book of Monsters” in big gold letters on the spine. On the cover? An extremely close-up black-and-white photograph of a caterpillar’s face. The publisher? National Geographic Books.

I mean, how do you not pick that up? 

(To Turqman) So what do we know about this Book of Monsters?

TURQMAN: So we know that it was published in 1914, and it has over a hundred super, super close-up photographs of insects. And these pictures were all taken by the author, David Fairchild, and with the help of his wife, Marian, in their backyard, in suburban Maryland.

BRIGGS: This catalog of backyard bugs—“monsters,” as the Fairchilds called them—featured groundbreaking photography of all kinds of critters: beetles, cockroaches, spiders, wasps, caterpillars, and dragonflies.

It was a sort of passion project for the couple. David was a botanist who was hired by the U.S. government to travel the world in search of new crops—in short, he was a food explorer.

TURQMAN: And so he went out and traveled around the world to try to find different variations of species, to bring them back to the U.S. to provide to U.S. farmers—to try to help diversify crops and find better versions of the different things that people were eating.

BRIGGS: Both David and Marian had strong National Geographic ties. Marian was the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, who in addition to inventing the telephone also served as president of the National Geographic Society.

David wrote articles for the magazine and even became a member of the Society’s board of trustees.

David and Marian worked together on the monsters project. They set up a giant camera in their backyard in Maryland.

It was a largely homemade affair that the book explains in its introduction:

VOICE-OVER: The whole art of taking these large photographs of insects is so simple that thousands of amateurs ought to be able to take them. The outfit consists of the camera, which is just a long box, a long-focus lens, a piece of ground glass and a focusing glass, a flashlight, a pair of pincers, some needles mounted in handles, or else some small dental tools, a few little blocks of wood, a candle, a piece of glass covered with tissue paper, and a long, hollow cylinder made of stiff black paper or cardboard. Add to these a great deal of patience, and you have all that is needed.

BRIGGS: They photographed the bugs in their backyard—not too different from what Joel did more than a hundred years later.

They published their first “monster” photographs in National Geographic magazine in 1913, and then they put out their book a year later.

Each page shows a large, black-and-white photo of a different monster, accompanied by a caption, colorfully written by David and Marian.

Check out the entry on the bald-faced hornet.

BRIGGS: Oh, here it is, the bald-faced hornet. I wish I could convey to you my sensation when, in hunting for the focus on my ground glass, this creature burst upon my sight. It was as though exploring in some strange land, I suddenly stood face to face with a beast about which no schoolbook had ever taught me anything. It peered at me out of the gloom of imperfect focus, and it took me some time to realize that I was looking into the eyes of a bald-faced hornet. There is no wild creature in the northern United States that a man will run away from so fast as from a bald-faced hornet. 

TURQMAN: And does this picture represent, I wonder, one of the nightmare visions which haunt the dreams of baby flies? 

BRIGGS: It's so romantic. 

TURQMAN: Do flies dream?

BRIGGS: Do flies dream? Yeah.

Each bug is photographed in a lifelike way that’s similar to how Joel photographs his animals for the Photo Ark.

The bugs are looking right at you, with all the details on display—from the hairy legs of a wolf spider to the lacy wings of a damselfly.

Maggie says that this was really unique for that time.

TURQMAN: A lot of times, if you were looking at something in a scientific book, you would basically just see the straight-down overhead view of things. And this is very three-dimensional.

BRIGGS: I would think, especially for the time, you know, people did not, I would imagine, get up close and personal the way these photographs are, where you can see, you know, the flies, the fly's eyes, or you're right up with—you can see the hairs on the spider's legs. I mean, that must have been an unprecedented view for a lot of the readers.

Readers were able to view these bugs in a way that they likely had never before: from an eye-level view. And perhaps this perspective could help his readers see these creatures for the very first time, even if they were a little scary close up.

And the book lays out the reasons for the Book of Monsters, which are surprisingly similar to Joel’s.

VOICE-OVER: So the pictures in this book are portraits of creatures which are as much the real inhabitants of the world as we are, and have all the rights of ownership that we have. But because their own struggle for existence so often crosses ours, many of them are our enemies. Indeed, man's own real struggle for the supremacy of the world is his struggle to control these tiny monsters. But all these fascinating little creatures are not our enemies. We must not forget that man has domesticated certain of the insects, and that gigantic industries depend upon them for their existence.

BRIGGS: Maggie says that David’s respect for these creatures is obvious.

TURQMAN: It's clear that he is not someone who is trying to eradicate all pests from the Earth. He gets the life cycle. Just hearing you say that makes me think of silk comes from silkworms. And—

BRIGGS: Honey and bees. 

TURQMAN: Yeah. And we couldn't live without them. I do think he probably had peers at the time who might have had a very different view. And people didn't know at that point, you know, what was happening with pesticides. I'm sure as part of USDA, he was inundated with, you know, the concept of “we have to make it work for the farmers.” 

BRIGGS: But Marian and David wanted to show the world these bugs are necessary too.

BRIGGS: So why would you think this book still matters today?

TURQMAN: Well, I think it's—these pictures are still what these creatures look like. You know, they haven't evolved since then. And so it kind of serves its purpose to, you know, amaze, inspire, and awe us about the natural kingdom. It's also a good reminder that looking at things from a different perspective can really kind of change your view of them sometimes. You need to consider it from the other guy's perspective, I guess. 

BRIGGS: And that’s because we humans depend on animals—even insects—to survive, a point that Joel Sartore is still working to make.

SARTORE: When we save nature, we're actually saving ourselves. These species need the same intact life support systems that we do: clean air, clean water, clean soil, good food, stable climate. They need the same things as us. So my job is to just build this thing, build the ark, and hopefully people will gravitate to it. 

BRIGGS: But time is not on our side. Joel says that in 80 years, we’re on track to lose half of all species, and that’s including plants.

SARTORE: I really have this stopwatch mentality—I can just hear it ticking like the 60 Minutes stopwatch, you know, I just hear it ticking. I mean, both on my life—I'll be 59 this summer—and on the time we have left to try to save big tracts of habitat. This is really key.

BRIGGS: This idea can feel daunting. But Joel says there are things we can do.

SARTORE: Watch what you buy, you know, reduce, reuse and recycle in that order. You know, recycling is the last resort. Watch the kind of car you drive. Do you use public transportation? How much meat do you eat? You know, just in your lifestyle, your consumer choices. That's really the power to change the world. Every time you break out your purse or your wallet, you're saying to a retailer, I like this so much, I want you to do it again and again. Well, your money can tear the world up, or maybe it can help save it.

BRIGGS: Joel still has another 10 years to go, about 10,000 animals.

SARTORE: Each one of these animals, whether it's a spider or a bird of paradise, they're all magnificent in their own way. They're all works of art. And to me, the ultimate sin is to allow anything to go to extinction, even one species. And we're on the cusp to lose thousands and thousands. And I'm glad people are finally starting to notice. But that's the mission—is to really get people to pay attention through repeated advertising. That's what we do. Repeated advertising on behalf of nature.  

BRIGGS: Joel’s COVID year put his attention on bugs, and as he turns toward the next phase, I asked him what the Photo Ark’s last portrait could be.

SARTORE: I think that the last portrait will probably be a family, naked—tastefully done. You know, a man with a full beard to show the difference between male and female there, you know, and, you know, kind of sideways portrait of a man or woman holding a baby and with a half-grown child. That’ll probably be the last thing I do.

BRIGGS: Maybe by photographing a family of humans, he’s saying, Hey, we’re going to save ourselves too.

More after this.

If you’d like to see Joel’s photos–more than 11,000 now, so be prepared to spend a little time a while there–you can do that at joelsartore.com. Or you can go to our website, natgeo.com. We also have a magazine feature on Joel and his Photo Ark, which you can find in our show notes.

And thanks to the power of the internet, you can also view the entire Book of Monsters online too—there’s a link for that in our show notes too.

Joel’s also coming out with two new books this month the first is called Wonders, and it features the most eye-catching animals he’s photographed. The other one is a book for kids, and it goes through the ABC’s, with poetry by Debbie Levy. You can check out those books on Joel’s website, most booksellers, or National Geographic Books.

So that’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app. If you like Overheard, be sure to rate and review us. It really does help.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Laura Sim, Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, and Ilana Strauss.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our senior producer is Carla Wills, who edited this episode.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.

Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.

And Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music, and also sound-designed and engineered this episode.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Joel Sartore.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more?

Peruse the 11,000 photos (and counting!) that Joel has taken for his Photo Ark on his website.

You can also flip through the entire Book of Monsters online.

Also explore:

Joel has two new books out next month. The first is Wonders, and it features the most eye-catching animals he’s photographed over the years. The other is a book for kids, and it goes through the ABC’s, with poetry by Debbie Levy.

And for paid subscribers:

Back in 2018, Rachel Hartigan wrote a magazine feature profiling Joel and his ambitious project.

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe today.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has been a supporter since 2012 of the Photo Ark project founded by National Geographic Fellow Joel Sartore. An author, teacher, and conservationist as well as photographer, Sartore created the 25-year project—now the National Geographic Photo Ark—to use images to inspire people to help save threatened species and habitat.