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Posted January 11, 2012
Dispatch #5
The Straight Poop

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

Photo: Spotted hyenas in poop
We got ten minutes with the spotted hyenas at Sunset Zoo before they trashed our background. That was nine minutes and thirty seconds more than I expected.

Help Joel rename the Biodiversity Project

I promised you a column on feces, and I’m a man of my word.

Most portrait photographers don’t have to worry about people going to the bathroom right on their backdrops in the middle of a photo shoot. At least I hope they don’t. My subjects, however, don’t care a bit. They go whenever and wherever they want. I don’t like it, but that’s just how it is. This post is about how I deal with it.

Mentally, I’ve got no problem with poop and pee. As animals ourselves, we all do it, though we humans are shy and tend to hide from the spotlight when relieving ourselves. But not pandas. Not birds. Not turtles. Doesn’t matter how cute and cuddly they are, given enough time, they all go, all the time.

About the only time my backgrounds remain pristine is when we can’t get the animals to go near them. For example, we got skunked the other day by Chacoan peccaries that simply would not walk into a neighboring stall lined with black cloth. No way, no how. But most of the time, things work out well.

Please know that we always start out with the black and white backdrops in pristine shape. The minute we put an animal on it though, things go downhill fast. Animals drag in dirt, shake off feathers and dander, and of course, often relieve themselves once they’ve stretched their legs a bit. I clean it up as best I can (using paper towels, napkins, and whatever) and try to finish up the shoot quickly, for good reason.

Photo: Joel photographs a snake
Keepers Steve Hammack and John Kast helped me with the
venomous snakes at the Fort Worth Zoo.
Photograph by Cole Sartore

The goal here is to get an interesting shot or two and then get the critter off the background as quickly as possible. This reduces stress on the animals and thus the chances that anything bad might happen. You don’t want to have to catch up a rare and delicate bird more than once just because the background got nasty. Working quickly is key. And so far, in nearly 1,800 species shot, I’m proud to say there hasn’t been a serious incident yet.

So you’ve got the straight poop. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d very much like to go and wash my hands. Next stop: Houston.

PreviousNext dispatch: “Meet the Mole Rats”

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