Behind the Lens with National Geographic Photographer Ami Vitale
On Monday, Nov. 27, National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale travelled to Skidmore to give a talk entitled, ‘Rhinos, Rickshaw, and Revolutions’ at the Tang museum. Illuminated by a slideshow presentation of her photographs, Vitale shared anecdotes of her travels and work across the globe with an audience of Skidmore students and members of the public.
She has travelled the world documenting people and wildlife in over 90 countries, living with locals in rural Guinea-Bissau and in conflict zones from Angola to Afghanistan. Over many years, she has battled food shortages and lived in mud huts, keeping true to her philosophy of ‘living the story’.
For Vitale, what began as a career in foreign correspondence reporting on some of the world’s most brutal conflicts, quickly led to disillusionment when she realized that she was covering only the most violent and sensationalized aspects of humanity. A near death experience while on assignment in Gaza sparked a fire within her to challenge the notion that the most powerful stories had to be grounded in death and suffering: “I had to ask myself, was I telling only one side of the story which was incomplete, at best?”
She realized that there were moments of profound beauty and hope that were embedded even within the most gruesome, bleak conditions. Hope was alive through it all, and that was a powerful motivator for Vitale in the stories she wanted to tell.
Her photography reflected this dramatic shift, and she began photographing everyday life in parts of the world that weren’t necessarily given due attention. She discovered simplicity and joy while living among the locals in rural Guinea-Bissau for half a year, photographing an alternate reality to the conditions of famine, poverty and war portrayed by the media.
In 2009, after shooting a powerful story on the transport and release of one the world’s last white rhinos, Vitale shifted her focus to some of the world’s most compelling, yet least known, wildlife and environmental stories, saying “Nature is a really big conflict out there. You can’t talk about people without talking about nature”.
During her talk, Vitale captivated the audience at the Tang with a photography series of the giant pandas in China’s Wolong Nature Reserve – a collection of adorable pictures that brimmed with hope: baby pandas taking their first steps and older pandas being reintroduced into the wild.
Vitale was a serene presence through the evening despite battling a wave of jetlag – she had just flown in from Dubai where she was on the judging panel at a prestigious photography competition. Yet, she was fully engaged with her audience; her excitement evident in expressing her passion for her work and her social initiatives.
At the moment, Vitale is actively involved in conservation efforts for wildlife at the Reteti Sanctuary in Kenya, a program she hopes to make her first feature film about in the coming year.
In talking about the power of photography and why she was so compelled by it as a young woman and throughout her life, she said “Photography transcends language, it gives people a voice.”
And indeed it does. This is a power she has come to recognize, especially in her role as a woman photographer today, where in many of her travels, she was often the only woman on the job.
Vitale recognized this power in her role as a woman by using photography as a tool to illustrate the lives and stories of women she interacted with around the world.
Recently, she joined Ripple Effect Images, an organization of renowned female scientists, writers, photographers and filmmakers who are working together to create powerful and persuasive stories that shed light on the hardships women in developing countries face and the programs that can help them.
Providing support for up and coming artists is important. “It’s not all glamorous,” she affirmed that putting in the effort and time to connect and empathize with people, is of absolute importance in telling meaningful stories. Vitale also spent time interacting with the English class ‘Tribes’ after her talk in an engaging discussion about the value of community and what unites us all as individuals around the globe.
Today, Ami Vitale focuses on stories of hope, even in the most challenging places on earth, believing that “The world is a beautiful place, and we need to celebrate the goodness. It’s everywhere."