The Guardian Warriors of Northern Kenya

MM8588_170216_1107

Please see my new work in National Geographic Magazine which will be published in the August, 2017 issue of the magazine about an elephant sanctuary in Northern Kenya. What makes it so special is that it is owned and operated by the indigenous Samburu community. It was a privilege to be allowed into this sacred place. In a world where we often focus only on the things that divide us, it’s important also to talk about the solutions and a way forward. The indigenous people living side by side to the wildlife hold the keys to saving what is left. Please considering visiting  Kenya or even contributing to the sanctuary. Link is at end of this story. 

Tracker Dogs Are an Elephant’s Best Friend

Thinking about end of year contributions? One powerful way to make a difference is to support the work  of  The Nature Conservancy in Africa. Last summer, I visited the 56,000 acres of Loisaba Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya and learned about the variety of ways TNC is working with local communities to protect elephants and their vital ecosystems.

Bloodhounds like Warrior and Machine, 200 plus pounds of slobbery goodness, are the unlikely best friends of elephants.  More than 25,000 elephants are killed each year for their ivory, and the tracker dogs are an important part of anti-poaching security forces working to protect these gentle giants.

In addition to being an integral part of this landscape, elephants keep forests and grasslands healthy for other species, including humans. They are a cornerstone of the tourism industry, which provides jobs and income for thousands of Kenyans.  See my photos and writing in National Geographic’s A Voice for Elephants.

 

Flash Print Sale to Benefit Wildlife Rangers in Kenya

Kilifi is an 18-month-old rhino that Kamara is currently hand-raising along with three other baby rhinos at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. Kamara spends 12 hours every day, sometimes in pouring rain, watching over the vulnerable baby rhinos. He calls them his children. He is part of the reason Kenya’s black rhinos, whose population had plummeted to near extinction, are doing so well here. Much needed attention has been focused on the plight of wildlife and the conflict between heavily armed poachers and increasingly militarized wildlife rangers. But very little has been said about the indigenous communities on the front lines of the poaching wars and the incredible work they do to protect these animals. These communities hold the key to saving Africa’s great animals. —Ami Vitale

Beginning July 6th, we launched a limited print sale of the touching photo of “Kamara and Kilifi” featured on National Geographic. All proceeds will go to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya to support their powerful work protecting both the endangered wildlife and the people of Northern Kenya. This is a tremendously hopeful story and your support will help rangers, including Kamara, continue this important work.

The $225 prints are 11×14 inches (29×36 cm) printed on matte archival paper and will ship from my studio (free domestic, $35 international). If you are interested, please email me at ami@amivitale.com and include “Flash sale”  in your subject line.

Thank you for your support!

Instagram takeover for The Nature Conservancy

This week, I will be taking over The Nature Conservancy’s Instagram account (@nature_africa) with photos of Loisaba Conservancy (@loisaba_conservancy) in Laikipia, Northern Kenya. Loisaba is an important elephant corridor, with more than 800 elephants spending significant time there, and it plays a critical role in maintaining ecological connectivity between Laikipia and Samburu. I am excited to be able to share this special place with you. You can follow along on my Instagram, @amivitale, and with @loisaba_conservancy and @nature_africa.

The Price of Poaching for The Nature Conservancy

Five years ago, I heard about a plan to airlift four of the last Northern White Rhinos from a zoo in the Czech Republic back to Africa. It sounded like a storyline for a Disney film but in reality, it was a desperate, last ditch effort to save an entire species. There are only seven of these rhinos left in existence. When I saw these huge, hulking gentle creatures surrounded by smokestacks and factories in the zoo outside of Prague, it seemed so unfair that we have reduced an entire species to this.

In December 2009, the Lewa Conservancy in Kenya airlifted the last four breeding age Northern White Rhinos from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. As of 2014, there are only seven of these rhinos living in the world.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya worked hard to make the move possible and the rhinos were flown on a cold, snowy night in December, 2009. They landed and were brought to roam “free” on the savannas of Kenya at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. The hope was then, and now, to breed them. The air, water, and food, not to mention room to roam, might stimulate them to breed—and the offspring would then be used to repopulate Africa. Failing successful breeding, they will be cross-bred with Southern White Rhinos to preserve the genes.

Recently, I had the opportunity to go back to Kenya on behalf of the Nature Conservancy to visit the four rhinos who had been airlifted to Kenya: Sudan, Suni, Najin and Fatu. It warmed my heart to see them nuzzling on the open plains, but I was reminded of a tragic truth by the team of armed guards who are there to protect them from poachers. Poaching is not slowing down, and it’s entirely possible, even likely, that if the current trajectory of killing continues, rhinos, along with elephants and a host of lesser known plains animals, will be functionally extinct in our lifetime. Organized by sophisticated heavily armed criminal networks and fueled by heavy demand from newly minted millionaires in emerging markets, poaching is devastating the amazing mega-fauna of the African plains.

Much needed attention has been focused on the plight of wildlife and the conflict between heavily armed poachers and increasingly militarized wildlife rangers, but very little has been said about the indigenous communities on the frontlines of the poaching wars and the incredible work that is being done to strengthen them. These communities may hold the key to saving Africa’s great animals.

The Nature Conservancy has been helping the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) form “community wildlife conservancies.” These conservancies benefit the indigenous communities, and help locals understand that high-end tourists are far more valuable to them over the long term than the short-term gain of poaching. The hope is that if their welfare, education and livelihoods are being jeopardized when a rhino or elephant is killed, local communities won’t let it happen.

We can often forget that the best protectors of these landscapes are the local communities themselves. Their efforts to preserve community cohesion is ultimately the best immunization against forces that threaten both their wildlife and way of life. See more HERE.

My Top 10 Rules of Travel Photography

I took some time to write up a list of tips on travel photography for B&H Photo’s Explora Blog. Let me know what you think.

Photography is not about the camera. It’s not even about the beautiful images we create. It is about telling powerful stories. Photography 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.

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 ten thousand miles away. For me, the intimate moments always matter the most.

Photography has been my passport to meeting people, learning, and experiencing new cultures. I want to talk about the methods and sensibilities I use to bring back powerful, story-telling images without getting hurt in the process. Here are the top ten rules that I live by.

 

1. Research

Read everything you can about the place you’ll be visiting, especially local newspapers and social media. 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. Nothing is as valuable as another photographer who has been there. I like to use social media to meet people, or through websites such as lightstalkers.org, where there’s a forum to connect and ask questions.

In this case, the story was about China releasing the first female giant panda back into the wild. With careful planning, we were given access to create a more powerful story that showed humanity's relationship to the Giant Panda. With some thinking ahead and planning, I acquired a more unique image.
In this case, the story was about China releasing the first female giant panda back into the wild. With careful planning, we were given access to create a more powerful story that showed humanity’s relationship to the Giant Panda. With some thinking ahead and planning, I acquired a more unique image.

 

2. Go deep

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. Below are two anecdotes about how I gained access and went deeper into a story.

I spent a couple of days with Subita and her family. At no time were we alone; around us hundreds of digital cameras were firing away. Before dawn broke, as we huddled around a fire, at least a half dozen people were looking at her only through their lens. The only time any of them acknowledged me was to ask me a technical question, like what ISO would work best in the stingy light.

Later, Subita would tell me how dehumanizing the impact of eager tourists and their cameras were on her. They made her feel like an animal―this is how she expressed it. No one even said namaste, or hello, to her. Those who surrounded her were after only one thing—what they considered a great shot. It was a hunt and she was simply the prize.

If some of the people who surrounded Subita had taken the time to spend even a few hours with her, learning a bit more about her life, they would have had a story and not just an image.

 

Nikon044

 

3. Be authentic and sensitive

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.

Talk to people. Whether it’s simply a nod of acknowledgement, a greeting, an explanation of what you’re doing, or a long involved conversation, connect with the people you are photographing. 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.

 

Children are one of the most universal themes that unite us all. This is a group of children who were displaced by conflict in the state of Gujarat, in Ahmedabad, India.
Children are one of the most universal themes that unite us all. This is a group of children who were
displaced by conflict in the state of Gujarat, in Ahmedabad, India.

 

4. Know your equipment

If you exude apprehension or tension, people pick up on it and cannot relax with the added element of a camera. Know your equipment so that you can focus on relating to your subjects. Your confidence in yourself will instill 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 backups on the real trip. Simple is always better. It’s okay to use the latest and greatest technology, but know how to use it before you start your trip.

I’ve been using Nikon equipment for many years. I test my cameras and lenses thoroughly, as soon as I get them. I want to be so comfortable with them that I could operate the gear in the dark. This image of the wrestlers had beautiful but extremely tricky lighting. I had to adjust my settings quickly to capture this shot successfully before the light was gone.
I’ve been using Nikon equipment for many years. I test my cameras and lenses thoroughly, as soon as I get them. I want to be
so comfortable with them that I could operate the gear in the dark. This image of the wrestlers had beautiful but extremely tricky lighting.
I had to adjust my settings quickly to capture this shot successfully before the light was gone.

 

5. Keep good notes

You think you will remember everyone you meet, but time and age fade the memory. In the past, I used to take down people’s names and a short description of what they were wearing, or some distinguishing feature about them. I would get back home, start looking through my notes and discover many of the girls I was photographing wearing similar-looking pink dresses. Now I carry my phone, loaded with a model-release app called EZ Release, which allows me to take pictures and get their consent at the same time. I also make a habit of writing captions and labeling images right after a trip ends, and not procrastinating.

 

Use your phone to take notes, get releases, and remember the people you meet on your travels.
Use your phone to take notes, get releases, and remember the people you meet on your travels.

 

6. Dress appropriately

Fit in with the scene. Understated is always best. Again, sensitivity for the mores and norms of where you are goes a long way to being accepted. A female photographer may want to wear a scarf to cover her head in some cultures. It’s one of the most visible ways to show respect for local sensibilities. I also avoid looking like the stereotypical photographer (black cargo pants or vests with lots of pockets).

 

When the first female panda was being released into the wild, I dressed myself up as a tree so as not to scare her. The director of the panda program was touched. He came running up to me, hugged me, and exclaimed, “You get to hold two baby pandas! President Obama, he only held one baby panda." The doors opened and we got excellent access for the rest of the story, and got far stronger images because of it.
When the first female panda was being released into the wild, I dressed myself up as a tree so as not to scare her. The director of the panda program was touched. He came running up to me, hugged me, and exclaimed, “You get to hold two baby pandas! President Obama, he only held one baby panda.” The doors opened and we got excellent access for the rest of the story, and got far stronger images because of it.

Later, we all dressed as pandas so we could get behind-the-scenes access to the panda training center where they train captive-born pandas to go back into the wild.
Later, we all dressed as pandas so we could get behind-the-scenes access to the panda training center
where they train captive-born pandas to go back into the wild.

 

7. Meet the leaders

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.

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. After that, I always spend the first day of any trip meeting local leaders wherever I’m working, and 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.

 

Getting close and intimate with people requires time and understanding. Building relationships is the most important aspect of what we do.  This is an image of a mother being consoled by her family at her daughter's funeral, in Kashmir, India. I spent four years documenting this culture, and because I took time and built relationships, I was invited into people’s lives and was able to reveal the sometimes difficult, yet always intimate moments.
Getting close and intimate with people requires time and understanding. Building relationships is the most important aspect of what we do.
This is an image of a mother being consoled by her family at her daughter’s funeral, in Kashmir, India. I spent four years documenting this culture, and because I took time and built relationships, I was invited into people’s lives and was able to reveal the sometimes difficult, yet always intimate moments.

 

8. Trust your instincts

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. I have found that establishing relationships in advance is the best way to prepare.

 

Just like this man built trust with the camel, you need to trust and work on the relationship on the other side of the lens.
Just like this man built trust with the camel, you need to trust and work on the relationship on the other side of the lens.

 

9. Give back

Your subjects are giving of themselves. Don’t abuse their gift of sharing their lives. Don’t treat them like models. Send back some prints, cherish the moment, and treat them well. Don’t promise if you don’t intend to deliver. In this age where many people are digitally connected, it has become easier than ever to email a jpeg to an address for your subjects to share.

 

Whether you bring back prints or simply spend time talking to people, it's important to make photography not just about taking images, but giving back, too. This is Subita and her sister as I am teaching them how to use my camera.
Whether you bring back prints or simply spend time talking to people, it’s important to make photography not just about taking images,
but giving back, too. This is Subita and her sister as I am teaching them how to use my camera.

 

10. Have fun

Yes, getting the shot is important, but be thankful that you have the opportunity to even be where you are. Pinch yourself and enjoy the moment. It relaxes everyone, and the pictures and stories are better for it.

 

Literally dive in and immerse yourself wherever you are. Find ways to connect with people. This is in Madagascar, and I'm just having fun.
Literally dive in and immerse yourself wherever you are. Find ways to connect with people. This is in Madagascar, and I’m just having fun.

 

If there is only one thing you take away from this, I hope it’s the understanding that all of us are not only photographers, but we are storytellers. There is a beautiful, universal truth everywhere and, if you peek under the veil, you’ll find a wondrous commonality between us. I hope that in your travels, you use your camera not just as an extension of your eye but also as an extension of your heart.

If there is only one thing you take away from this, I hope it’s the understanding that all of us are not only photographers, but we are storytellers. There is a beautiful, universal truth everywhere and, if you peek under the veil, you’ll find a wondrous commonality between us. I hope that in your travels, you use your camera not just as an extension of your eye but also as an extension of your heart.

IndieVoices Campaign a Success!

Thanks to the generosity and support from an extraordinary community, my IndieVoices crowd funding campaign has been successful and we are on our way to creating a very important project! I am grateful to everyone who contributed and shared this story.  The New York Times and National Geographic Proof also featured it on their websites.

Commercial poaching organized by sophisticated heavily armed criminal networks and fueled by heavy demand from newly minted millionaires in emerging markets is devastating the amazing mega-fauna of the African plains. It is entirely possible, even likely, that if the current trajectory of death continues, rhinos, elephants and a host of lesser know plains animals will be functionally extinct in our lifetimes.

Much needed attention has been focused on the plight of wildlife and the conflict between heavily armed poacher and increasingly militarized wildlife rangers. However, the compelling story of indigenous communities caught in the cross-­hairs of the poaching wars, and who may hold the key to saving Africa’s great animals, is largely untold.

If you’re still interested in supporting this, its not too late. Please get in touch with me personally. Your contributions will go back into these communities and these majestic creatures.

You can also help by contributing directly to the powerful work of The Lewa Wildlife ConservancyNorthern Rangelands Trust and The Nature Conservancy in Africa who fight everyday to protect the natural world we all share.

Thank you so much!

In the photo above, Yusuf, a keeper at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in central Kenya, slept among three orphaned baby rhinos. The calf he rested his head on was orphaned when poachers killed his mother 50 miles away.

 

Deadline for Alexia Photography Grant Approaching

The Alexia grant is a phenomenal award that provides grants and scholarships to photojournalists, enabling them to create work that gives voice to those who go unheard, fosters cultural understanding and exposes social injustice. In 2000, this grant changed my life when I won the professional grant. I was young and inexperienced and it allowed me to start my first story in the tiny, impoverished country of Guinea Bissau.  It was there – without the pressure of a deadline, or the expectation of a magazine  that I learned the importance of patience, of taking time to tell a story.  I thought I would stay a month but ended up living there for a half year, telling the stories of how the majority of people on this planet live. It was a powerful turning point when I realized I want to spend my life working to highlight the commonalities of human existence rather than our differences. It was also at that moment I realized that I was not going to be just a photographer. I was also going to be a storyteller.

The deadline for The Alexia Foundation Professional and Student Grants is Jan. 13, 2014 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. The Professional Grant carries a prize of $20,000 for a professional photographer to produce a substantial photo or multimedia story that makes the world a better place.  There are a total of six Student Grants available. The student winner will receive funding for a semester at the Syracuse University London Program,  a $1,000 cash grant to help produce the proposed body of work, a $300 gift card from Dury’s Photo and $500 will be awarded to that student’s academic department. Student awards will also be given to a Second Place Winner, and three Award of Excellence Winners.

This year, a new student grant has been added, The Gilka Grant, honoring Robert E. Gilka, the longtime director of photography for National Geographic Magazine and an important supporter of The Alexia Foundation. The Gilka Grant will recognize the best project proposal that also includes a multimedia component. The winner will receive a $1,500 scholarship to attend the Kalish Workshop.

I hope you apply and submit those proposals that inspire us. At the end of the day all of us are not only photographers.  We are storytellers and its important to cover not just the headlines but also to focus on the stories that unite us. Good luck!

Link to student grant: http://www.alexiafoundation.org/grants/student_rules

Link to professional rules: http://www.alexiafoundation.org/grants/professional_rules

Link to grants page: http://www.alexiafoundation.org/grants

Film for Ripple Effect Images

MediaStorm  created a beautiful film about my work with Ripple Effect Images. Our aim is to tell the stories that empower women around the world. Watch it HERE.

 

For photographer Ami Vitale, the pivotal moment occurred in Guinea-Bissau.

 

It was the start of her career and she was visiting her sister in the Peace Corp. Vitale expected Africa to be filled with war, famine, plague or the other extreme, exotic safaris.

 

Living in West Africa for six months showed her not only “how the majority of people on the planet live their day-to-day life,” but that people were not as hopeless as the newspapers portrayed. There was “a great deal of joy there.”

 

It is a revelation that has guided Vitale through 80 countries and a 13-year career.

 

Her original desire to take “beautiful pictures” was transformed into a desire to do justice to people and their stories. As a photographer Vitale’s focus has centered on issues surrounding women, poverty and health. The common denominator to all of her stories, she realized, is nature, specifically climate change. And it’s women who bare the brunt of those changes.

 

But when a woman is offered the tools to improve her situation, she runs with the opportunity. She transforms communities. “It’s a ripple effect,” says Vitale.

 

It’s the desire to see change that led Ami Vitale to join Ripple Effect Images, a photography organization started by Annie Griffiths that shares imagery with other changemakers.

 

“We are telling the stories that are so important and get lost in the headlines,” says Vitale. “They are the key to connecting things and allowing people to get engaged and make a difference.”]

 Nikon018

COFFEELAND: Images from Ethiopia in Afar Magazine

Check out this month’s issue of AFAR travel magazine and the story “COFFEELAND” by writer David Farley. This was an epic journey across Ethiopia tracing the origination of coffee that goes back to the thirteenth century. Legend says that a herder named Kaldi noticed his goats “dancing” after nibbling bright red berries. Kaldi brought the berries to a nearby monastery where holy men declared they must be the work of the devil and threw them into a fire. Yet, the aroma was too tempting and they quickly raked the roasted beans from the embers, ground them up, and dissolved them in hot water, yielding the world’s first cup of coffee.

This journey did not involve dancing goats but I did travel with brilliant coffee expert Geoff Watts from Intelligentsia coffee and the incredible people from TechnoServe who taught me more than I could ever imagine about my favorite beverage. I also got to meet farmers who showed me what they believed was THE ORIGINAL COFFEE TREE. This happened  in two different villages and there seems to be some debate over which one holds the original tree. Wherever the truth lies, I do know that the culture around coffee in Ethiopia is a serious affair. Its much more than gulping bottomless cups on the go. For those who’ve been invited to a coffee ceremony, it the highest possible gesture of respect and friendship. If you are attending an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, be prepared for a long wait. A traditional ceremony can last a couple of hours and it feels like a spiritual ritual as incense is burned and the grounds are brewed three times.  The first round of coffee is called awel, the second kale’i and the third bereka which actually means ‘to be blessed’.

The experience and knowledge changed the way I will ever think about coffee. Here in the USA, we sling it back but after witnessing first hand the tremendous energy and love it takes to get the best beans to market,  I came back a changed woman. And on the advice of these coffee experts, my french press is now sadly sitting in the back of the closet and we are brewing coffee by hand with the best roasted Ethiopian coffee. Here are some of the images from the trip but pick up a copy of Afar to see the whole story.