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Posted January 5, 2012
Dispatch #1
Away From Home

This is one in a series of dispatches sent from the road by photographer Joel Sartore.

Photo: Ellen and Spencer at home
On the eve of leaving on the big zoo trip, my kids Ellen and Spencer Sartore clown around amid the gear after carrying all the photo equipment upstairs.

Help Joel rename the Biodiversity Project

“How long are you away from home?”

Once folks find out what I do, I get asked this question, almost daily, whether I’m working or not. “About a third to half the year,” I say.

Whoever is asking the question usually then goes on about how fun that must be: getting out, driving, staying at hotels. How exciting that must be! Being on assignment for National Geographic!

To tell you the truth, I’d be happy to never stay in another hotel again. But I’m in it for the pictures, and I can’t shoot everything in my own backyard, much as I’ve tried.

So here we are. My 18-year-old son, Cole, is with me on this trip, to shoot video but also to haul gear and keep me company. He stayed up until 3 a.m. last night doing who knows what, and so today he’ll be out cold for the entire drive. For fun I took a picture of him snoring just now, frosty cornfield outside the car window, somewhere near the Nebraska state line (below).

Our plan is to hit three zoos on this weeklong trip. We’re taking my hybrid car to save on fuel, but space is tight. Inside are all my lights, soft boxes, black velvet, several sheets of four-by-eight-foot PVC board, plexiglass aquariums, computers, video gear, four still cameras, 11 lenses, and clothing. Splitting the car up the middle, from the tail to the front dash, are two ten-foot-wide rolls of white photo paper. There is barely room for Cole and me to sit. I feel like an astronaut packed into a Mercury space capsule.

First we’ll hit the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kansas. It’s a three-hour drive from my home in Lincoln, Nebraska. We’ll be there a day and a half, trying for larger animals like a giant anteater, a maned wolf, and even a chimp or two. I’m saving the chimps for last, because they throw poop.

After that, it’s on to Texas and the Fort Worth Zoo, then the Houston Zoo. The goal is to photograph as many different animal species as we can—against black and white backgrounds, using studio lighting—before time runs out.

Wish us luck.

PreviousNext dispatch: “Labor of Love”

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