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Photo Ark exhibition coming to the Tennessee Aquarium March 1

Feb 21, 2024

Chattanooga, Tenn. (Feb. 21, 2024) – When it comes to their names, some animals could use a better publicist because, to the unfamiliar ear, there’s little about “River Chub” or “Least Rasbora” that spurs the imagination or sparks a desire to protect them.

That’s where award-winning National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore comes in.

The chub and rasbora — both freshwater fish species — are two of the dozens of animals Sartore has visited the Tennessee Aquarium to photograph as part of the Photo Ark, his attempt to document all species in human care at zoos, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries around the world.

Through this 17-year (and counting) effort, Sartore has archived stunning portraiture of more than 15,000 species across more than 50,000 images. He estimates completing the archive could take another seven to eight years.

More than merely ticking each and every box on an exhaustively ambitious list, Sartore hopes these images inspire wonder and a sense of urgency to protect all life on Earth. Presented on plain black or white backgrounds, Photo Ark viewers are given no choice but to consider each animal’s unique qualities in isolation and, hopefully, feel moved to safeguard them.

“The Photo Ark is really my last-ditch, desperate effort to get people to care about nature,” Sartore explains in the introduction to a documentary about the project.

Tennessee Aquarium Animal Care Facility Lead Adam Johnson and Senior Aquarist Kyle McPheeters, from left, help photograph a Port Jackson Shark during a past visit to the Aquarium by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, right. (Credit: Doug Strickland/Tennessee Aquarium)

Tennessee Aquarium Animal Care Facility Lead Adam Johnson and Senior Aquarist Kyle McPheeters, from left, help photograph a Port Jackson Shark during a past visit to the Aquarium by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, right. (Credit: Doug Strickland/Tennessee Aquarium)

Beginning March 1 and continuing through the end of the year, the Aquarium will exhibit two dozen images from the Photo Ark throughout its campus. As they explore the Ocean Journey and River Journey buildings or take in a screening at the IMAX 3D Theater, guests will see Sartore’s incredible photographs on enormous banners, graphics and video projections.

Some of the Photo Ark images on display, including the southern flying squirrel and four-eyed turtle, were created during Sartore’s eight previous visits to the Aquarium. Others, such as the red-eyed tree frog or African elephant, highlight interesting and at-risk species that aren’t part of the Aquarium’s living collection.

Regardless of the setting in which the images were made, the Photo Ark aims to level the playing field and inspire an equal sense of wonder and importance for all animals — whether big or small, world-beloved or largely unknown.

“The black and white backgrounds are a great equalizer,” Sartore said. “It shows the beauty, the grace and power in a mouse. He’s no less important than a Polar Bear. That tiger is no more important than a tiger beetle.

“We must, must, must get people to care [about these species]. It’s absolutely critical.”

Presented at the grand scale at which guests will encounter them during their Aquarium visit, the Photo Ark images bring details to the fore that would be easy to miss in motion. Up close and frozen in time, guests can appreciate the rough textured skin of a Short-tail Nurse Shark or the slick, glossy sheen on a Spotted Salamander.

Weaving Photo Ark’s images and messaging into the guest experience dovetails naturally with the Aquarium’s call in 2024 for visitors to “get closer, look deeper and enjoy the ‘wows’ along the way.” Taking a more deliberate pace while exploring brings minuscule, easily overlooked details into focus, such as the trailing bubbles that appear in the wake of a diving penguin, the flecked gold eyes of an American alligator or the gem-like coloration of native darters and shiners.

The Photo Ark exhibition is presented locally by the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation with additional support from First Horizon, and Yamaha Rightwaters.

“The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is proud to support this special exhibition,” says Amy Katcher, TDEC-Materials Management Program Manager. “Sartore’s images help people experience nature with fresh eyes, inspiring them to seek ways to protect water and wildlife.”

“Yamaha Rightwaters applauds the Tennessee Aquarium’s commitment to environmental education, particularly as it relates to freshwater,” says Joshua Grier, Sustainability Program Manager for Yamaha Marine. “Viewing Sartore’s wildlife images while immersed in the Aquarium experience reinforces the idea that protecting water and wildlife begins on land.”

A photograph of a Brook Trout from National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark project is displayed in the Tennessee Aquarium. (Credit: Tennessee Aquarium)

“First Horizon has been proudly supporting the Aquarium’s mission for more than 30 years,” says Jay Dale, First Horizon Market President, Southeast Tennessee. “This exciting new exhibition is thrilling to see, but it will also cause Aquarium guests to pause and think about the fragility of nature and our obligation to protect it for future generations.”

To launch the Photo Ark exhibition at the Aquarium, Sartore and his son — and Photo Ark Curator — Cole will visit Chattanooga on Thursday, Feb. 29. There, they will discuss the origins of the archive and the harrowing and funny backstories to creating its images.

Sartore’s presentation will take place 6-6:30 p.m. in the River Journey auditorium, after which audience members can tour the Aquarium and see how Photo Ark imagery is integrated into the guest experience. Drinks and hors d’oeuvres will be served before and after the presentation. Tickets are $45 for Members and $50 for non-Members.

To register in advance for the evening event with Joel Sartore, visit community.tnaqua.org/events/2024-events/joel-sartore-photo-exhibit-

More details about the Photo Ark are available at joelsartore.com/photo-ark/

To view Photo Ark images taken by Joel Sartore of animals at the Tennessee Aquarium, go to joelsartore.com/search/tennessee+aquarium/

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