He slowly collected the pieces and patiently reconstructed the lens using a leatherman to tighten miniscule screws. A mystery piece that didn’t fit anywhere apparently played a role in holding the lens to the body, so he duck-taped the two together. With this bizarre-looking contraption, he proceeded to take some sickeningly good pictures. It was inspiring to watch him in action, and strangely reassuring to know that even the masters are prone to bad luck.
The harlequin frog that Joel was photographing is one of the rarest frogs in the world. The striking yellow and black species, which has yet to be described, survives in just one stream near a small town called Limon in the south of Ecuador. The frog has lived through attack from a deadly fungus and clung on where other harlequin frogs had been consigned to the annals. Why is unclear – but what is clear is that this species may hold important clues as to why the fungus has ravaged some populations, driving species to extinction, but spared others.
We had come to Ecuador to document this conservation success story: a species that has survived against the odds. I met up with Joel and the rest of the team in Quito to make the 12-hour drive to Limon. We started off as a handful of scientists from the local Catolica University, Joel and Jenny from National Geographic and myself, Gina and Carlos from Conservation International. By the time we arrived in Limon we had swelled to a team of 13: a motley assortment of scientists, photographers, film-makers and writers . I have never witnessed so many people taking pictures of people taking pictures whilst others film those people and writers take notes to document it later. Confusing, I know.
As we approached the stream where the frog survives we realized that our assignment had suddenly taken an unexpected and sobering twist. As bulldozers shoveled dirt over the sides of the ravine, we saw the precarious habitat that supports this species disappearing before our very eyes. We were no longer here to document a conservation success story: we were here to document a possible extinction. Within weeks a new road would be carved through the ravine, turning the stream into a dumping ground for rubble.
We waded up river feeling somewhat pessimistic about our chances of even finding the frog: were we already too late? When suddenly, a cry of delight from one of the team upstream raised our spirits like a generous shot of rum. We raced up to find a small male harlequin frog clinging to a leaf. As long as the species is alive, and some of its habitat remains intact, we have a chance to save it. We are working with local partners to protect a patch of habitat upstream of the impending danger: a last refuge for a unique species, but this is will be a losing battle if our voice is not heard beyond this crumbling ravine.
What next? Well, what the ILCP does best. Using powerful images to tell the story to the world, we will apply pressure on the government to honor its commitments to reduce biodiversity loss by 20010. It’s not just about the frogs; it’s about the ecosystems that we all depend on for clean water, clean air and quality of life. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye now and ask questions later: when people look back we will either be remembered as the generation that sat back and watched the world around us being stripped of its essence, or the generation that did something about it. I know which I would rather be remembered as. The ILCP provides a voice for those that fall into the latter category and is becoming an increasingly powerful force for conservation, shining the spotlight on pressing issues and putting pressure on the decision-makers to answer some difficult questions.
Ok, ok, I know what you are thinking: but what about Joel? Well, being in the field with Joel is any aspiring photographer’s wet dream – it is a real inspiration to watch him action. What I found particularly refreshing was his openness and willingness to share advice and ideas - and to try the local specialty of guinea pig. He is also incredibly humble. When asked how he felt on gaining his first assignment with Nat Geo 18 years previously, Joel responds “I was really, really nervous. The pressure was on”. There were, after all, hundreds of people waiting in the wings to take his place. He recalls one assignment where he was asked to photograph grizzly bears. “Grizzlies!” he exclaims, as if it were some sick joke “Can you imagine? How many times have grizzlies been photographed? How do you find a different angle – it really forced me to think about getting the different shots”. Given where he is now, he clearly knows how to get those shots.
Joel now exudes the quiet confidence of someone who doesn’t feel the nagging pressure of being replaced. All the same, he works as hard as any newbie trying to prove themselves, spending hours on a subject to get just the right shot. He shoots until those accompanying him need to sleep: on our first night he shot frogs until 1am, feeding off adrenaline as others slunk back to the car one-by-one to listen to Shakira to stay awake. And when he is done shooting, he returns to his room to diligently download and organize his images. After over 20 years in the business, what drives him to work so hard? A deep-rooted passion for photography and an admirable sense of duty to produce the best images he can and to tell the story he is there to tell. “You are only as good as your last shoot” he muses. Judging by the shots he took on this trip, I’d say he’s pretty damn good. So what does it take to be Joel Sartore? It’s not just knowing your way around a camera and an eye for perfect composition; more importantly, it is hard graft, persistence, and the patience of a Saint. Oh yes, and duck tape.