Extinction mugshots: 'See this? This is gone'

Story highlights

  • Marc Schlossman has photographed many extinct animals at a museum in Chicago
  • CNN's John D. Sutter: There's time for the "almost-gone" category to become "still here"
Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook or subscribe to his email newsletter.

(CNN)When professional photographers talk about "the field," they're often referring to some far-flung rainforest or iceberg -- a distant locale where they travel to make interesting pictures.

Marc Schlossman means the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
    The museum's archives of dead creatures -- many of them extinct in the wild, or well on the way -- has become a professional fascination for the London-based photographer. Growing up in Chicago, he volunteered at "the Field." Now, he has spent the last nine years photographing nearly 140 extinct or at-risk species. Schlossman calls the collection of images "Extinction," and he means that to be a verb. As in, we humans are making these creatures extinct.
    Photographer Marc Schlossman
    "The impetus for the project was outrage at how one species (humans) can have such influence throughout the world and affect every other form of life," he told me.
    That's a subject we all should get familiar with, no matter how uncomfortable.
    Biologists say the Earth is on the verge of the sixth mass extinction -- as CNN has been documenting in a series called "Vanishing." There only have been five of those in Earth's history. This would be the sixth -- and the first time people would be to blame.
    If nothing changes, three-quarters of all known species could disappear in a couple centuries.
    Schlossman doesn't want to be too heavy-handed with that grim message. He wants to give people the feeling of opening up the drawers of the Field Museum's archives. In them you'll find creatures like the Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker, a red-capped bird that could be extinct in the wild.
    "You think, 'God, this is it, this is the only place to see this bird, this drawer,' " he said. "There's none left."
    Schlossman told me he tried to compose the images with the "simplicity of a police mugshot." Like you're looking at the specimen without museum glass as a barrier.
    The intended effect: "See this? This is gone," he said.
    Put dozens of these images together, Schlossman said, and you start to get a sense of the staggering scope of the global extinction crisis, which is driven by factors such as climate change, habitat loss and illegal wildlife trade.
    "When you see them lined up on a wall or one after the other on a website, there's a certain impact," he said. "It's almost like a row of things -- one story after another. Hopefully people will be affected by it in the way that I am. I open these drawers and I'm just kind of overwhelmed at the end of the day. I see things that are gone or almost gone."
    It's easy to feel haunted by images of the extinct -- those ghosts from beyond.
    But that "almost-gone" category deserves our focus, too.
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    We know how to prevent the sixth mass extinction, according to experts.
    We need to abandon fossil fuels; put aside more land and ocean -- perhaps half of it -- for conservation; and curb demand for illegal wildlife products like elephant tusks, giraffe tails and pangolin meat.
    There's time for the "almost-gone" category to become "still here."
    But according to one scientist -- Stanford's Anthony Barnosky -- that window is rapidly closing.
    Otherwise, mass extinction will become inevitable.