As a seasoned travel photographer, Ami Vitale has lived in mud huts and war zones, contracted malaria, and even donned a panda suit. Fortunately, her interview with Keith Wilson was far more straightforward…
Explore Ami Vitale’s world
For the past 20 years, Ami Vitale has photographed conflict, cultures and environmental issues. Her photo stories are the culmination of multiple visits and painstaking research, as typified by her recent feature for
NationalGeographic, documenting the efforts of Chinese scientists to breed and release pandas back into the wild. Photographing the world in all its guises may sound glamorous, but it’s alonely job, and photography didn’t come easily to the quiet girl growing up in Florida...
Did you find photography or did photography find you?
I was a shy, awkward kid. My parents wanted to help me and thought that putting me in front of a camera would give me more courage. Well, it didn’t quite work out the way they’d planned, because I never got used to being in
frontof the camera. But I realised that being behind the camera is really where I get my courage. By putting attention on others, photography empowers me. Not only that, but by empowering myself, I also empower the people I photograph. It became very meaningful, and that’s how I got started. Photography has been my passport to meeting people, learning, and experiencing new cultures.
You have travelled to more than 90 countries. Is there one you never tire of going back to?
I never tire of this. I don’t view travel photography as solely an adventure. Although I do 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 an insight and understanding of it. 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 to visit one location several times, if you can. Right now I am spending a lot of time in Kenya.
Can you describe your preparation and working style when on location?
Read everything you can about the place you’re visiting, especially in the local newspapers. Local stories that may not reach the large international papers give me clues about what’s really happening in a place. Establish relationships before you even get on the plane. Make a point of befriending other photographers and sources.
Once you are there, whether you’re in a slum or a city, there’s always a hierarchy. If you take the time to explain why you’re there and get the blessings of the leaders or elders in any community, it will keep you safer than wandering around aimlessly. As a woman, I also take time to meet the women leaders in a community, too.
I think 99 per cent of telling a great
The magic really begins when you stay in a place and give yourself enough time to gain an insight and understanding of it. It requires tremendous patience
story is down to the research and getting access. Very little of the work is actually taking photos. Stories evolve and get richer with time. Sticking with a story for years helps you to understand the complexities, characters and issues that are not always immediately obvious.
What camera gear do you pack for a typical assignment?
Right now I’m working with the Nikon D5 and D500, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lenses, and the 24mm perspective lens. It’s important to know your equipment so that you can focus on relating to your
subjects. Your confidence in yourself will instil confidence in them. For me, simplicity is the key to success. I never bring new gear on an assignment or a trip – it’s always tested at home first, and I bring back-ups on the real trip. Simple is always better. It’s okay to use the latest and greatest technology – but only if you know how to use it before you start your trip.
What is the oddest accessory you pack when you go away?
An old-fashioned compass that my sweetie gave me so I always know which direction home is – and a tiny lucky pig!
Which is your desert island lens?
It would either be the 24mm perspective lens or 24-70mm f/2.8.
Which was your first Nikon camera and what did you like about it?
The FM2, and it was one of the best film cameras ever made! It had no autofocus or auto-winding and it had a mechanical shutter. It was tough and unforgiving, but really taught me the art of photography.
You have documented major issues such as climate change and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as human interest stories such as the coffee makers of Ethiopia. What are the main similarities and differences when covering these different topics?
I started my career photographing conflict zones, where I was encouraged to show the most dramatic images, and I realised that we need more than that. We need more empathy and understanding. All of my stories about nature and wildlife are really stories about people. And all of my stories about people are really about nature. I came to that understanding after realising that the conflicts were often about resources. With seven billion humans on the planet, nature has a huge role to play in our lives. When we see ourselves as part of the landscape and part of nature, then saving nature is really about saving ourselves.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt endangered or out of your depth?
One evening, after photographing angry protesters, a rogue group of young men decided that they wanted to use me as an example to show their anger towards US policy. I had spent the day with the women leaders in the village and they came to my rescue when they saw the mob scene developing around me. That’s why I now always spend the first day of any trip meeting local leaders wherever I’m working, to get their blessing. I’m always amazed at how quickly the news of my project spreads in a community. Everyone knows why I am there and doors open.
My takeaway is this: I rely on the kindness of strangers everywhere I go. It is real and out there – most people are lovely and kind. It’s a wonderful world out there, but remember to be on guard as, unfortunately, bad clouds can form and tensions can escalate. Trust your instincts and don’t ever assume or be lulled into a false sense of security. Even if it feels safe, don’t let your guard down.
Is there one single image of yours that you think best encapsulates
your style and your approach?
Not really. I’m always changing. But sometimes certain pictures tell a story particularly well, and those images invariably illustrate one quality – empathy. It takes time to gain trust, whether from people or animals.
You are now shooting video as well. What made you take the plunge?
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, but I don’t think I would have had the courage to take the leap into shooting video unless Nikon had called and asked if I knew anything about 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 D300s only the night before my trip to India began. I frantically studied the manual on the 28-hour long journey and arrived terrified and wondering if I had just made the biggest mistake of my life…
But instead of being a mistake, it proved to be quite the opposite?
I ended up producing an homage to India, Mirages. If I had not had that opportunity, I probably never would have made the leap, but I’m so grateful I did. In a time when media is
Previous page PANDA GONE WILD A 16-year-old giant panda lounges in a wild enclosure in Wolong Nature Reserve, China Orphaned Rhino A group of Samburu warriors in Kenya touch a black rhino for the first time Eyes A young girl washes near her family’s rice fields in the small village of Dembel Jumpora, Guinea-Bissau
Morning feas t Camel traders breakfast at the world’s largest annual cattle fair in Pushkar, India LAST SHANGRI LA A young Buddhist monk enters Trongsa Dzong, home of Bhutan’s monarchy Following page DISPLACED Muslim children in Dariya Khan Ghhumnat Rahat refugee camp, in Ahmedabad, India
Above and right SPOT TH E PANDA Even caretakers (above) and visiting photographers (top right) have to wear full panda costume at the Hetaoping panda centre, in China’s Wolong Nature Reserve