Ami Vitale – Seeing Oneself in Others

Editor's Note:

Ami Vitale is an internationally renowned photographer. As of the publication of this interview, Ami is in Northern Kenya spending time at the LEWA Wildlife Conservancy documenting rhino conservation efforts there. She is discovering that beyond the needed focus on the well being of endangered species it is also very important to focus on the human communities that live in close proximity to wildlife. Sometimes, these communities may never had the opportunity to see, let alone interact with, the species they are expected to care for.

After a short break for the upcoming Holidays, Ami is scheduled to be in Sri Lanka on a project for National Geographic Magazine. From there she will continue on to China, also on a project for National Geographic Magazine.

This interview for mediaforchange.org was conducted by Jayesh Ganesh.

Background

As a young woman, I was very shy and introverted. I found when I picked up a camera, it gave me a reason to interact with people. Photography empowered me and later became my passport to engage with the world around me. It allowed me to learn about and eventually understand people and make sense of the world. Now it is an incredible tool to tell important stories and hopefully create understanding.

Ami Vitale in Bangladesh during the shooting of the documentary "Bangladesh: A Climate Trap" - her directorial debut. PHOTO: Mick Davie
Ami Vitale in a panda suit while shooting a story about the first female giant panda being released into the wild in China. PHOTO by Robin Cox.

From Photography to Documentary Films?

I don’t think I would have had the courage to take the leap into shooting video unless the camera company Nikon had called and asked me if I had experience with making videos. “Yes of course”, I replied instantly, knowing nothing about moving images or how to even operate the camera. I assumed I’d have time to learn before the shoot but was surprised when they sent the camera the night before my assignment began. I frantically studied the manual on the 28 hour long journey to India and arrived terrified and wondering if I had just made the biggest mistake of my life.

Times are changing and video is now playing a much bigger role in what we do. Cameras like the one I carry can shoot HD video and it can enhance our abilities as storytellers. This is already playing a big role in my future. I’m so grateful I had this opportunity and I went back to school to learn more. In a time when media is struggling and searching for a new path, I’m finding that I am busier than ever telling meaningful stories in new ways for a variety of outlets. Its an exciting time to be a photographer and journalist and this new skill can create more opportunities for all of us.

At the LEWA Wildlife Conservancy, Kamara- a rhino keeper introduces baby rhinos to a group of Samburu warriors. Ami learned that the warrior group from the Northern Rangeland Trust had never even seen a photograph of a rhino before this day. PHOTO: Ami Vitale

Working Style

A lot of my work involves traveling to foreign countries and living in remote places. My job is to become invisible and get close to people and wildlife, so I can bring their stories to life. It’s no different being in my home state of Montana than it is being in a country five thousand miles away. For me, the intimate moments always matter the most.

I don’t view travel photography as solely an adventure. Although I get to witness extraordinary things, it’s not simply about jetting off to exotic places. The magic really begins when you stay in a place and give yourself enough time to gain insight and understanding. It requires tremendous persistence and patience, but I would rather spend more time in one place than try to see it all. One way to get beyond surface images is to plan a trip to one location, several times, if you can.

The easiest way to make compelling, real photographs of people is by being authentic. Making candid images of people is not a trick. It’s a skill a photographer can develop, which requires respect for the subject and building a relationship in the time you have together. Successful pictures of people almost never happen from a distance. Put away the telephoto lens and become part of the moment.

Remember, we have more in common with each other than you might think. Don’t look at people as different or exotic. Rather, focus on the things that unite and bind us.

Ami Vitale first became involved in the conservation of rhinos while a master's student at the University of Miami. She learned about the endangered northers white rhinos and how the last of them were to be flown from a zoo in the Czech Republic to Kenya and a last ditch effort to have these creatures procreate in the wild. PHOTO: Ami Vitale

What Can Media Change?

I deeply believe in the power of stories and images to change people’s minds. It does and can have a positive impact on the world. Photography is not about the camera. It’s not even about the beautiful images we create. It is about telling powerful stories. It is 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. I believe the way to find common ground is by seeing yourself in others.

Future Plans

I am working on a number of stories that relate to nature and humanity and the most pressing issues of our time. But I also believe strongly that I have to pay it forward and pass on the skills and opportunities to the next generation of photographers, storytellers, filmmakers. So a big component of my work is now teaching. You can look at my website to find where my next seminars and workshops will be.

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