A life-long Nebraskan, Joel Sartore brings a sense of humor and a mid-western work ethic to all of his National Geographic assignments. And there are times when he needs both of these qualities.

Sartore suffering from travel to remote assignment image

He grew up in Ralston, Nebraska, a small town just outside Omaha. He describes his family as solidly middle class, adding "There's not a lot of depth to me in a lot of ways. I like good pictures and I appreciate the fact that in Nebraska, the people seem to be made very, very well. They hold up."

It wasn't until college, when he saw his first black-and-white image starting to appear in a developing tray in his makeshift darkroom (a dorm room closet at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) that he grew interested in photography.

It was cool. I couldn't believe it. And it was just pictures of my hung-over roommates. Too hung-over to move. I piled beer bottles on them and did still lifes of them, then I'd give these pictures to them or, better yet, give them to their girlfriends just to irritate them. You know, I learned that photography's just fun. It makes great gifts and it makes people happy most of the time... It's a key to the whole world.

Though he made a few stops along the way (about six years worth) before signing on with National Geographic, the die had been cast.

National Geographic associate editor Dennis Dimick says, "From the very first time I ever met him, you could tell that there was a spark. This wasn't just work. It was passion. It was calling."

Of course, there's always a down side.

“You have to be really patient,” says Sartore. “If I weren’t Type A and very obsessive-compulsive, there’s no way I’d do this. Most shoots I’m covered with bugs... Most of the time it's physically miserable, and if you weren’t wound tight like me to get good pictures, why in the world would you ever do something like this? I don’t think you could stand it!”

He stands it because he does get good pictures - and even a few great ones from time to time.

"When you're done and you look back on the things and you see the picture you've got, then that's just killer. There's nothing better."

Corn detasselers on bus image In Sartore's eye, an example of the "killer" picture is this one of kids who were hired to pull the tassels off of corn. "This one on the bus is better than I am," he says.

"I don't think I shoot that well most of the time. I shoot clean. But I don't think I get many moments... It's a real moment and I didn't even know I shot it cause it happened kinda quick. For me, this is way over where I am skill-wise. There's some photographers that every shot they shoot is this good. And I mean, I'm never gonna get there. But once in a while, you know, a blind hog gets an acorn, as they say."

Sartore the Environmentalist:

Although he argues that he's not "a tree hugger," Sartore says he has seen one debacle after another as traveling the world - from the disastrous effects of clear-cutting rainforests to the types of mining that poisons streams and kills fish.

Sartore is pessimistic:

If you think about the stuff I'm photographing here, it's mainly ghosts. It's all ghosts. Just little remnants. Just little bitty pockets of wildlife. That's all that's left. You know, this and a couple spots of prairie around Lincoln, but for most of my job, it's just little remnants, little scraps of what used to be. I'm just photographing the last of everything. Whether it's wolves or grizzly bears or rhinos, jaguars or parrots in South America. It's the last of everything I'm photographing. It's really kind of tragic.

On the positive side of the ledger, occasionally he gets to strike a blow for the cause of the natural world and its endangered species. There was a widespread public outcry when his pictures taken in Madidi were published in the Spanish lanaguage version of National Geographic with the heading "Madidi, Will Bolivia Drown its Spectacular New National Park?"

Sartore the Family Man:

Sartore says that when he leaves on extended assignments his family pines for him for about a week. At the end of two weeks, the level of communication drops off considerably. After three weeks, he laments, it's like he was never even there. And when he's gone for a month or longer, all he does is mess things up when he returns, because his personal clock is so different from the family's rhythms.

I've had a lot of stuff happen while I was gone that you wouldn't think should happen. Like my wife's bought a house with me gone. And she told me about it over the phone when I was in Bolivia. All she said was "Trust me, you'll like it." So I had her fax me a picture and she faxed a stick drawing of a stick house and a stick man and a stick woman waving and it said, "You'll really love it."

Kathy Sartore tells of her husband's rush of enthusiasm as he returns from assignments - how he'll sit down to dinner and begin expounding on just exactly how the world is going to hell in an ecological hand basket, that species are going extinct every hour, the rainforests are disappearing, and on and on.

But all the kids may want to talk about is the marble art they did at school that day. "Sometimes," she says, "he's just got to come down to earth and let go of the heavy things he's dealing with. So I just have to cut him off."

The very long periods away from home are a source of discontent for everyone. Near the end of the program, as Joel is about to leave for an extended trip to Alaska, his daughter Ellen sees her mother crying and says, "This is only the third time I've seen Mom cry." Her mother replies, "This is only the third time Daddy's left for so long."

When he returned from Alaska, one of his shots from that assignment was featured on the cover of National Geographic.


When to Watch

At Close Range with National Geographic premieres February 5, 2007
Check your local listings.