Cover fea­ture

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…

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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

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