Mr. Big does not look happy having his image immortalized on film.
But it's all a pose.
The photograph above shows an African lion strutting his stuff, doing what big cats do when confronted by a stranger. The resident of the Omaha Zoo charges and growls.
The man behind the picture is Joel Sartore, an experienced Nebraska-based freelance photographer with National Geographic magazine who is on a personal quest to document as many animal species on film as possible, before some disappear forever. He has launched the Biodiversity Project, a largely self-funded mission that has taken him around the world.
The author of "RARE: Portraits of America's Endangered Species" has been blogging about his efforts and displaying some of his unique work on his website and National Geographic's Field Test blog. Prints of his work can be purchased at his website.
CNN spoke recently with Sartore, just before he headed out on another assignment.
CNN: Why did you launch the Biodiversity Project?
Sartore: This project basically looks at any animal I can put on a black and white background that will hold still long enough to get a picture of. The point is to get people to look these creatures in the eye and see if they care. Do we care that we're losing half of all the world's species by the turn of the next century? We better care, because what happens to them will eventually happen to us. It's folly to think that we can drive every other species on the planet to extinction and it won't affect us somehow.
CNN: How many animals are at risk?
Sartore: It's a big task. I've been at it six years. I've photographed about 2,000 of the captive species held in American zoos, aquariums and rehab facilities. So I'm a third of the way done. I'm going to try to get to all of them if I can, if my time doesn't run out. It's daunting. It's something that's going to be the big thing that I do with my time here on Earth, to try to get across to people that there's amazing things if they just stop and look. It's all around us, even in our own backyards. I'm showing the things that I think are the most interesting, weird, funny, quirky, scary. I'm trying to get people into the tent and get them to realize that these things all have value. They're worth saving. They're worth looking at. At least acknowledge them before they go away.
CNN: How do you get these amazing pictures?
Sartore: I work with zoos well in advance. We talk to the head keepers, we talk to management, and we always ask, which animal would tolerate having its picture taken in this way? In the case of a predator like a big lion, they said the portrait experience was actually enrichment for him because it gives Mr. Big a chance to express his "lion-ness" - if that's a word - that he is the top cat there. So he is exerting dominance. Otherwise he's going back to sleep. It tests your nerves. I can say that because he kept charging the bars repeatedly. For something like this, we go in ahead of time. The lion is sealed into the enclosure, and we put up paper and duct tape it down. We let him in; we'll toss a piece of meat into the middle of the background to get him to go to the middle so that he's surrounded by white, and we take his picture. The whole thing's over in 20 minutes, tops.
CNN: You have a mobile studio and travel across country. Is it glamorous?
Sartore: I load up my Toyota Prius with my paper, my lights, my background, my containers for small animals, and then I hit the road and drive however far it takes to get there. I've driven all the way out to California to photograph an endangered fly. I've driven out to the East Coast to photograph shorebirds that were being trapped in the wild as part of a study with biologists. I always work with biologists. I'm not handling anything myself. It's just a lot of time on the road and eating fast food and thinking about the next place to go. It's very satisfying to know that the zoos are very encouraging. They're happy to see me. They like to see how beautiful these animals are, how alert and vibrant the colors are, how each one is kind of a work of art. So far, I've been self-funding this. It's kind of my hobby in a way, but it's more of an obsession, really, because I have almost 2,000 of these images now.
CNN: It can get messy, and your encounter with some hyenas proves it.
Sartore: I would say I'm one of the few portrait photographers in the country in which my subjects routinely poop and pee right on my background, right in the open. The hyenas, they defecate, and they drag it in on the white background. If you tried to put black cloth in with them, they would pull it apart in a minute. Predators in general are really hard on black backgrounds. We try to keep things as clean as we can, knowing that the animals are going to soil it immediately. They start out clean, and it goes downhill pretty quickly. We don't have too many minutes with these animals. We don't want to stress them unduly.
CNN: Your photos have a unique look. Why use those plain backgrounds?
Sartore: I use these backgrounds because it allows the viewer to look into the eyes of each of these species. We want to give people a clear idea that a fly is no less important than a polar bear, that a mouse is equal in value to a tiger. All these animals, when they're put on black and white backgrounds, you have no sense of size or scale, and they're all equally important. These clean backgrounds, with no sense of size, are the great equalizer. For somebody like me, who's concerned about all creatures great and small, this is basically a tactic to get people to realize that all of them have equal weight and that none of them should be purposely driven to extinction. It's not right, and they're all key to our very survival. When we doom a certain number of species, we're going to doom ourselves.
CNN: Martha is a good example.
Sartore: Martha the passenger pigeon is what really got me into this in the first place. I was a kid growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, and my mother bought a book on the birds, and there was a section in there on extinction, and they showed this old black and white picture shot in about 1913 or so, this last living passenger pigeon, named Martha, at the Cincinnati Zoo. And she died a year later. Well, I studied that picture for a long time. I read the caption over and over again. It talked about how this bird was once the most numerous on Earth, populations that numbered in the billions. It would take hours and days to fly by, with flocks blocking the sun. When I looked at this picture, it made me think, "how can we let that happen?" Well, market hunting drove that species to extinction. But something that's driving creatures to extinction now is not that easy to identify. It's a changing climate that makes it harder for some high-altitude frog to make a living. Or poaching takes away the last of the ape species in a jungle in Asia. So these things are much more subtle. We can't really see what's happening. We just know that our world is diminished more with each passing year as people spread out. I've followed endangered species all my life because of the impact that picture made on me when I was 8 or 9 years old.
CNN: Tell us about some of the animals you met up close.
Sartore: The gray gibbons were interesting, photographed at the Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, Illinois. I've been to about 60 zoos so far, and often they don't have the room or the funding to provide an ark going forward in time for every species. And so of the world's nine to 12 gibbon species, depending on who you talk to, zoos are going to be able to save three. And they're going to be the three showier ones that they have 50 or more in captivity. With the gray gibbon, there's only about 28 in captivity worldwide. If there's not enough in captivity to keep the genetic lines going, they can't get any more from the wild, so the zoos are going to phase out these gibbons, and that means letting it go to extinction. It's a new concept to me, because I thought we could just save everything in zoos, but we can't. Zoos now realize, not only do they need to step up their captive breeding efforts, but they need to actually save habitat and stop poaching. They need to reach out and work in foreign countries if they're to hope to save anything at all in the wild.
CNN: Do you remain pessimistic or optimistic about your work?
Sartore: I feel good about what I'm doing. I want to continue to do it as much as I can. I've gotten more invitations to zoos than I can possibly get to for the next four or five years, which is very gratifying. Truly, the idea is to get the public to care about more than the price at the gas pump and what's on TV. I just need to get people aware of the fact that we are animals ourselves. We have to have clean air, clean water and a stable climate in order to survive. When we doom so many other species to extinction, we're really threatening our own existence. I'm basically a witness, if you will. I feel like I'm standing by myself on the end of a bridge, and I'm waving a flag or a light in the darkness, and I'm saying, "the bridge is out, guys. We can't keep going this way."