Ami Vitale is an American photojournalist and documentary filmmaker. As a contract photographer for National Geographic she travelled to nearly 100 countries. In the past 25 years she has been documenting poverty in developing countries, political and religious conflicts around the globe. She has lived in mud huts and war zones and even contracted malaria. In recent years she shifted her focus to wildlife and environmental stories and the relationship between animals and humans.
For our blog, Ami gives us insights in her experiences as a photo journalist and her recent work with the Panono Camera.
As a Photojournalist you travel a lot and work on various projects. What does your daily life look like?
As a young woman, I was painfully shy, gawky and introverted. When I picked up a camera, it gave me a reason to interact with people and take the attention away from myself. It empowered me and, in the beginning, photography was a passport to learning and experiencing new cultures. Now it's much more than that. It’s a tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures, communities, and countries; a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share. It can be powerful and amplify others' voices.
Being a photographer and filmmaker is an extraordinary career and a real privilege. I see the best and worst of humanity and the magnificence of this planet. My day to day is never the same and this year I've been on the road working in over 25 countries and home for just 9 days this year. One day I'm on a plane with lions and rhinos, other days, getting clawed and attacked by baby pandas, or walking with a herd of orphaned elephants whose story I’ve been covering for the past two years. Some days I am on stage giving talks or teaching workshops. This week I'm in the middle of a desert in blistering heat and blinding sand in the middle of the west African country of Niger working on my next story for National Geographic. This month I have to go from this blinding heat to freezing temperatures of Norway, then to a formal launch in Italy for a project I’ve been working and then to a lion translocation in Mozambique. Packing is humorous. Squished in my suitcase next to boots and mosquito repellent sits a formal dress and heels.
How do you create your stories?
Usually I discover stories from reading and realize that it needs to be told visually in addition to the written story.
How do you prepare yourself before trips?
I read EVERYTHING! Books, newspapers, magazines. Research is everything.
What were the main obstacles that you faced as a female photojournalist? What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
It sounds romantic to travel the world but the reality is that you must be emotionally self-reliant. I look back on experiences I had and now wonder how I got through some of them. They were sometimes unimaginable, often lonely and occasionally utterly terrifying. I’ve had malaria, but you expect to get sick. It’s the psychological dangers that scare me the most. I’ve been harassed, threatened and learned quickly as a woman that I have to be thoughtful about how and where I work. No picture is worth my own personal safety. Over the past 18 years, I've worked in nearly 100 countries which makes it look like I am a travel photographer but I don't view my work that way. While I do travel and witness extraordinary things, it's not simply about jetting off to exotic places. The magic really begins when I stay in one place, often years to get beyond the surface. I found my voice by first listening and then talking about the things that connect us all.
You’ve worked in over 100 countries, documenting all sorts of stories. What has been the most remarkable photo story you’ve worked on to date? Why?
I can’t pick one story. They are all remarkable. How can you choose from being attacked by baby pandas to getting to know a herd of orphaned elephants or saying goodbye to the world’s last northern white male rhino named Sudan whose story I’ve covered for the past ten years? What I have learned after being asked to cover the most sensationalistic, violent aspects of humanity for the first decade of my career is that there is always much more than just the violence and every story has a very beautiful side to it. There is incredible resilience and hope, often in the most seemingly "hopeless" places. By only focusing on the violence, at best I was leaving out half the story and at worst maybe it was even a lie. Because there is so much more and it's our responsibility to not just focus on the things which divide us, but also all the things that connect us.
One story that did have a powerful impact was covering the world’s last Northern White rhinos. After learning that this ancient species could not survive mankind and is functionally extinct with just two of them alive today, I shifted my focus to some of the world’s most compelling yet least known wildlife and environmental stories. Losing one part of nature, impacts all of us. Today, I use nature as the foil to talk about our home, our future and where we are going.
There is a universal truth and we are in this intricate web together. There is so much that connects us all to one another, whether we understand it or not and the loss of any species has a ripple effect on other animals and on all of humanity too. The future of nature is the future of us.
What advice would you give to photographers who want to get their work featured in National Geographic?
The truth is, very little "clicking" happens and it's not only about travel. I travel to some astonishing places but the secret is about going deep and revealing more than just an “exotic” image. Sticking with a story for years helps you understand the complexities, characters and issues that are not always immediately obvious. I’m a really slow photographer. I go back and back again. Empathy and earning trust is the most important tool I can have. I’ve got to have people trust me enough to let me into those special moments. I spend a lot of time explaining why I’m doing this and why it’s important. The trick is to get access to places that no one else can get to, and the secret to this is to know your subject better than anyone else. So, my advice to those who dream about this is to find a story close to you – maybe even in your backyard – and make it yours. You don't need to travel abroad. What you do need to do, however, is tell a story better than anyone else can, using your own unique perspective. If you find your own story and show complete and utter dedication, then you will find a way to carve out a career.
Funding has always been challenging but I work to make "timeless" images that will have a life that carries on rather than "timely" images for the voracious news cycle.
Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?
Recently you used the Panono Camera for one of your projects. How do you think 360° photography can be integrated in photojournalism or nature photography?
What I love is the ability to bring everything into frame. In the past, wildlife photographers and filmmakers showed pristine landscapes without humanity but the truth is, nature is everywhere and so are people. Before, we just framed the camera to leave people out of the story and presented the wild as something that we would all marvel. Now, not only do you see the incredible wildlife that exists but you can't ignore that humanity exists right alongside. And I think showing this gives us a way forward. a world where humans and wildlife can coexist. Rather than trying to cut human life out of the picture, I used these cameras to capture the entire story. These 360-degree cameras allow us to see the Whole story and get past the headlines. It makes everyone’s point of view, also your point of view. Empathy is about seeing something from someone else’s point of view and that is what these cameras do.
What is your opinion on today’s state of Virtual Reality? Do you think it will impact the way that photojournalist work?
I think it’s still evolving and we do not yet fully know the impact it will have but I do think it’s important as storytellers to embrace every single tool we have to communicate stories.