Sartore tells Calgarians controversial stories to stir up thoughts about the environment

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On the screen flashes a photograph of at least a dozen dead koalas, all of which had been killed over the course of just one week. After Joel Sartore ran the story with this photograph, the Australian government decided to declare the koalas as imperiled in northern Australia.

This is what photographer Joel Sartore does. He says photography is about much more than something alluring to look at, and for him, photographs provide the power to move the needle of public opinion. He said his ultimate goal is “to get society to care, and make the world a better place.”

Sartore recently visited the Epcor Centre as a part of the National Geographic Live series to share some of his stories.

Getting people to care

In today’s world, getting people to pay attention and care about the environment can still be quite a feat. Although Sartore has been doing what he does for over 24 years, he says he still finds himself coming up against obstacles.

“I struggle every day,” Sartore said. “Most folks are glued to the TV, the web and the price at the pump. It’s hard to be heard over all of that — especially when you’re trying to save a rare frog or turtle.”

Despite his struggles, Sartore has seen some success. In March 2000, he said his cover story “Madidi: Will Bolivia Drown Its New National Park?” may have factored in to the Bolivian government’s change in their plans to build a hydroelectric dam that would have left a large portion of the forest under water.

“The Bolivian government’s efforts to build a dam there was cancelled, at least in part by our coverage,” Sartore said. “This dam would have been terrible environmentally.”

In addition to his stories, Sartore travels around the world to talk to large audiences in an attempt to stir up action.

Jennifer Johnson, director of programming and arts learning at the Epcor Centre, said she was excited about the impact Sartore had on the audience.

“You could have heard a pin drop in the Jack Singer Concert Hall that night,” she said. “Joel had his audience completely enthralled when they weren’t laughing at his hilarious stories. It was a exceptional evening.”

120330 Lowry Park Zoo 48985 3Joel Sartore’s photo at Lowry Park Zoo is part of his Photo Ark project that displays photos of endangered species like the Florida panther.

Photo courtesy of Joel Sartore

Andrea Beaty was in the audience and works at the Calgary Zoo in the education department. She said she found Sartore’s presentation very inspiring.

“We all need to do something,” she said. “It’s not just someone else’s problem, its something that we need to be responsible for.”

Beaty said she was eager to pass Sartore’s messages on to the kids she teaches at Zoo School — and to make immediate changes in her personal life.

“I let my National Geographic subscription run out. I need to renew that,” she said. “I need to go back to the farmers market and buy some strawberries and freeze them. You know, I need to do these things that seem so simple and common but are important, and sometimes you just need a reminder.”

Passionate for change

Sartore has been to many challenging environments, has endured great illness, and spent a copious amount of time apart from his wife and three kids, but he said it’s all worth it. For him, stirring people’s thoughts is invaluable because it means saving our planet.

“If we don’t start thinking about how many humans there are and our consumption of resources around the globe, our way of life will not last,” he said. “We are Rome at its peak right now, and we all know what happened there.”

He admitted that even if he wasn’t working for National Geographic, he’d still be searching for these same types of stories.

“There’s no better way to live a life than by trying to improve the health of our planet and the species within,” he said. “After all, when we save other species, we’re actually saving ourselves.”

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