NKU students shadow National Geographic photographer at Columbus Zoo

NKU student Emily Keener didn’t spend this past Wednesday morning in class or at work. Instead, the junior NKU environmental science major spent the better part of her day alongside birds, mussels and many other animals as a part of an excursion she took to the Columbus Zoo with world-famous National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore.

The African Elephant  is one of the species documented in Joel Sartore's Photo Ark collection. The piece is on display in one of NKU's FotoFocus galleries.

The African Elephant is one of the species documented in Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark collection. The piece is on display in one of NKU’s FotoFocus galleries.

Keener, along with fellow NKU student Evan Sgouris, traveled to Columbus with Sartore as he took portraits of several animals at the zoo and another nearby animal facility linked to the zoo for his well-known Photo Ark project.

“It was really cool for me as a scientist,” Keener said. “We had really good conversations just about the project and biodiversity and different things.”

Sartore photographed the animals as a part of his Photo Ark project—a collection of over 4,000 species he has photographed over the past nine years in an attempt to photograph every species of animal held in the world’s zoos.

Keener said the opportunity to do the shoot in Columbus with Sartore arose from a scheduling conflict with his planned lecture on Thursday night at NKU (one of over fifty venues to host a FotoFocus gallery featuring his work), which landed him in the area a day earlier than necessary.

Not wanting to waste anytime, students were invited to accompany Sartore as he travelled to Columbus to use the time to capture photos of some species he has yet to photographically document.

Sartore photographed two birds at the Columbus Zoo and then we went to a mussel and freshwater fish facility that is linked to the zoo, where he and the students “staked out in a room” and went through the Photo Ark database to see if he had photographed all of its species or not.

Keener was invited on the trip due to her time spent this past summer doing research on Sartore’s work. She joined forces with fellow NKU student Kathryn Keefe. Together, the two looked into ways this sort of scientific photography could help teach and communicate scientific lessons.

“I researched each of the 27 animals and compiled unique and interesting ‘fun facts,’” Keener said in her research poster about the project. “These fun facts were used to illustrate important scientific concepts such as natural selection, adaptation, physiological advantages and parental behavior and care.”

Evan Sgouris is a junior photography major at NKU who was invited to go on the trip through his position interning at the NKU art gallery that is featuring Sartore’s work. He was also able to go on an additional trip with Sartore to the Cincinnati Zoo on Thursday (see his photos below).

Sartore has been a freelance photographer for National Geographic for 20 years. His Photo Ark project is his own independent project separate from the National Geographic brand.

Overall Sartore’s goal is to document endangered species and landscapes in order to show a world worth saving, according to his website.

And this is something that really resonated with Keener.

“I think it is important to collaborate with other fields to make science relatable,” she said. “I like art as an avenue to show people that science is not just a bunch of fancy words. I’m really into anything that communicates science and photography is something that definitely has the potential to do this.”


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