Over the Islands of Madagascar

These are just the first few minutes of the documentary on my work in Madagascar. It will be available in full length as an app in the Apple appstore in July 2011.

Over the Islands of Africa — Madagascar

The sounds of their names alone conjure up thoughts of pristine beaches, spices and the tales of a thousand and one nights. The five-part documentary series “Over the Islands of Africa” follows five internationally renowned photographers as they explore the islands around Africa — Zanzibar, Mauritius, Madagascar, São Tomé & Príncipe and Cape Verde.

The photographers stop at nothing in pursuit of spectacular perspectives for their aerial photographs, stories and portraits, making use of unusual means of transport, from a motorised parachute to a flying rubber boat that can land on land as well as water.

There are few women among the upper echelons of photographers. Ami Vitale is one of them. A frequent visitor to the world’s conflict zones, Ami looks for more than just beautiful motifs. She seeks out the story behind the picture. In Madagascar, she she wants to explore what it means to be Malagasy.

Ami begins her journey on the old pirate island of Nosy Bé in the northwest. Together with the French skipper Nicolas, she sails along the rugged coast to the realm of a king of the Sakalava culture. The daily lives of Malagasy are regulated by prohibitions and taboos that often remain invisible to strangers. Depending on which group one belongs to, it may be forbidden to touch a chameleon, talk about crocodiles or work on Thursdays.

Armed only with her camera and a few newly acquired phrases in the local language, she ventures into villages seldom visited by strangers. The women show Ami how to carry a bucket of water on her head, winnow grain and protect the beauty of one’s skin beneath the blazing African sun. At the Sakalava’s festival in honour of their ancestors, Ami meets the spirits of deceased villagers. She learns that chameleons are harbingers of misfortune and hears the blood-curdling nightly howls of the Lemurs. Ultimately she even gets a private audience with King Momad, one of the last kings of Madagascar.

In Diego, Ami meets the gem trader John. He leads her to sapphire mines, where fortune-hunters risk life and limb in search of the ultimate prize.

Pilot Yves takes Ami to the heart of the island, the Malagasy highlands, in his small propeller plane. The flight affords Ami the chance to take some breathtaking aerial photographs. In the capital of Antananarivo, the picture starts to take shape for Ami. She meets the musician Rajéry, who lets her in on one last secret — the sound of Madagascar, which goes straight to the heart.

Spirits, Kings, Lemurs — Madagascar treats Ami to a multitude of new impressions and spectacular pictures. Director Christian Schidlowski and his team accompanied her on her trip.

Documentary | 2011 | HD | 52 minutes
Directed by: Christian Schidlowski
Dramatization and editing direction: Verena Schönauer
Camera: Sascha Kellersohn
Music: Nils Kacirek
Production Manager: Carolin Neubauer
Line Producer: Markus Breimaier
Producer: Thomas Wartmann
Editor: Ulrike Becker, SWR

Guinea Bissau: Rediscovering the Soul of a Forgotten Land

I recently returned to the West African country of Guinea-Bissau on a generous grant from the Alexia foundation to revisit a village where I began my career as a photographer ten years ago. Young and very green, I had applied for a grant from them back in 2000, on a whim. To my delight and horror, I got it – even beating out some National Geographic photographers I heard, who had also applied that year. I had no idea what I was doing and was terrified. But the foundation felt there was something special about my proposal to document a small village in an unstable country torn apart by war. They took a risk on me back then and changed the course of my life.

Flash forward to 2011, and not much has changed in Guinea-Bissau. Bullet holes still pockmark the elegant facade of the presidential palace, its gutted interior still blackened by bombs from a civil war fought over a decade before. One aid organization working in the area has unearthed approximately 3,000 anti-personnel mines in the capital and is still digging up unexploded ordnance in the countryside. Corruption, a devastated economy and continuing instability continue to erode the urban center, while crumbling infrastructure and skirmishes with separatists in neighboring Senegal have caused thousands of civilians to flee border areas. Despite my experiences working in such places, returning felt just as terrifying as when I first arrived ten years ago.

Guinea-Bissau is a forgotten state. Few flights arrive here each week, aid agencies are scarce, and now the country is being called Africa’s only narco-state, a nation controlled and corrupted by drug cartels. As a recent U.N. report concluded, it has everything criminals need: “resources, a strategic location, weak governance and an endless source of foot soldiers who see few viable alternatives to a life of crime.” Many fear this will further destabilize the already volatile country.

Even getting a visa was a challenge. Every phone number I found for a consulate or embassy was disconnected, and flights to neighboring Senegal had been canceled for weeks due to conflict near the border. I finally came across a number in New York. The woman who answered was the UN representative, running the consulate out of her home for the last seven years because the country was too poor to pay rent for an office. After a few questions, she paused: “I know you,” she said, laughing, “You sat next to me on the plane to Bissau 10 years ago. I still have a photo of you with my daughter.” I was shocked. This was a powerful reminder that despite all the problems, it’s the people who make a place special, and it is personal connections that help me through obstacles.

Once I landed, my fears washed away. I once studied Pulaar, the local language, and now I was putting it to good use, remembering all its elaborate greetings. This was the single most important thing I could have done to prepare for my trip. It kept me safe. As I took public transport to the village, my fellow passengers stared at me with shock and delight. They were so thrilled that a foreign woman would know some of their language that I could tell right away no one would ever harass me. Instead, I was met with laughter, smiles and gracious offers to carry my belongings. The women in the village saw me first and began running to greet me. I cried, they cried, we laughed and settled in for the night. I spent 12 days there, listening to their stories and taking photos.

I learned on my first visit that every day is a struggle for Guineans, but I was mesmerized by the people who gave so much to open up my eyes to the beauty and sadness of their lives. Through it all, I was reminded of how similar we all are despite the distances between us.

On my last evening in 2001, I sat with a group of children beneath a sea of stars talking into the night about my return home. One of the children, Alio, innocently asked me if we had a moon in America. It seemed so symbolic and touching that he should feel like America was a separate world. I was able to meet Alio again this time around. Now he is a young man with a cell phone and a worldly vision. I asked him if he remembered our conversation about the moon. He laughed shyly and said, “Yes, I know now – we share the sun and moon – but here you are our guest, so we will share ours with you.” Once again I was reminded that no matter how desperate and impoverished a place may look, the truth is that nearly everyone on this planet shares the same values. I see a lot of people with common notions of kindness, peace, generosity and a sense of community, and the moon serves as a constant reminder that we are all tied together in an intricate web, whether we believe it or not.

Madagascar

I’m back from Madagascar where I spent a month before the holidays,  discovering the island for a TV show called “Maritime Africa”. It will be a five-part documentary series about the islands around Africa.  SWR/ARTE (German and French public TV) and twelve other European stations will air the show that will be about the islands, their people and the distinct cultures as I document it for a coffee table book.  It was a privilege to work with this incredibly talented group  of people. Check out their website: http://www.filmquadrat-dok.de/ Images will follow soon!

United Nations Millennium Goals Multimedia project

In 2010, I made a short film in Sierra Leone on maternal health which is now online on LinkTV.

http://www.linktv.org/viewchangefilmcontest/films/view/851

Sierra Leone has among the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. In 2009, it is estimated that one in eight women died during pregnancy. To get some perspective, one in 47,600 women die in pregnancy in Ireland. The reasons are complex but in part it is due to an insufficient health care system. In the capital of Freetown, one doctor has to serve more than 100,000 people. Getting drugs and equipment is expensive and the country is in desperate need of more trained doctors. Yet there may be hope  since the government announced it will give free health care to pregnant women and children from April 27th, 2010 but they need help from the international community to make it sustainable.

I worked together with fellow student Lauren Malkani for just a few short but intense days in Freetown to create this short multimedia story while getting my Masters at the University of Miami in 2010. I also worked as Senior Producer with the Knight Center for International Media along with Rich Beckman, Tom Kennedy, and a great team of students to produce this website on the UN Millennium Goals. http://mdg.glocalstories.org/

Sierra Leone: Where every pregnancy is a gamble.

Some of the images in this video are graphic and viewers may find them disturbing.

Sierra Leone has among the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. In 2009, it is estimated that one in eight women died during pregnancy. To get some perspective, one in 47,600 women die in pregnancy in Ireland. The reasons are complex but in part it is due to an insufficient health care system. In the capital of Freetown, one doctor has to serve more than 100,000 people. Getting drugs and equipment is expensive and the country is in desperate need of more trained doctors. Yet there may be hope  since the government announced it will give free health care to pregnant women and children from April 27th, 2010 but they need help from the international community to make it sustainable.

Return to Sierra Leone

I am leaving tomorrow to Freetown, Sierra Leone filled with feelings of anxiety as well as hope. The last time I was there was just a few months after the brutal civil war ended in 2002 that claimed tens of thousands of lives and left more than a third of its population displaced. Yet it is the unspeakable atrocities that are so haunting. I remember back in 1999, Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora, a friend and extremely committed journalist, who was later killed covering the conflict, told me stories of rebels offering their victims the choice between a “long sleeve” or “short sleeve” just as they were about to hack off their victims’ arms. When I arrived, three years later, I saw faces devoid of expression, weighed down by these horrific memories. The goal was not just to kill people but to terrorize an entire population.

Today security and the politics are steadily improving but there is a quieter battle still going on.  One in eight women are dying giving birth. The government recently announced free health care to pregnant women, breast-feeding mothers and children under five beginning on April 27. With only about 170 doctors for more than 5 million people, this will be a daunting task.  I hope this documentary can raise awareness, promote change and help. The doctors, health workers and government are working hard to change the statistics.

If you are interested in learning more about this or want to donate, the following links are to organizations working there.

Unicef

Marie Stopes International

Doctors Without Borders

Amnesty International

Flight for Survival: How it happened?

rhino

They are huge but gentle, lumbering beasts and there are only eight left on the entire planet. Scientists believe the magnificent Northern White rhinos are nearly extinct. There are rumors of some, a few at best, in Southern Sudan but none have been seen for many years now. These eight, two in the San Diego Zoo and six in the Dvur Kralove Zoo in cold, snowy Czech Republic are all we know of the second largest land animal on earth.

In a last ditch effort to save this species from extinction, the Lewa Conservancy in Kenya cut a deal to airlift the last four breeding age animals from the Czech Zoo to live “free” on the savannas of Kenya, not too far from Mt. Kenya. The hope is that Africa, the temperance of the climate and the room to roam will entice them to breed and establish a nucleus for the future re-population of their former Central African range. If that does not work, then breeding them with Southern Whites can help preserve their genes.

I heard about the plans and immediately visited them while I was in Prague for a workshop last October. The story captured my heart instantly. It is a story of hope and of a second chance, something rarely seen in the environmental movement. Surprisingly, no one was interested because it was not a visual story. The rhinos would be in wooden crates for the entire journey and to most editors, it justifiably was a lot of expense for a story that would be difficult to tell. In today’s economic climate, no one can afford to risk investing in a story that might not work.

Yet, I could not let go and wrote another more impassioned appeal for help to get me there. This move was a last ditch effort for saving this entire species and I did not want to miss the opportunity to document it. It was more than a story of flying rhinos 4000 miles across the globe. It was a story of conservationists feeling confident enough with Africa to bring back a critically, endangered animal. The animals are getting old and they would not live long in the Eastern European zoo, under smokestacks and snow. I could not imagine a more poignant picture.

Thankfully, several organizations pitched in. None could afford the entire costs but each was willing to help. Organizations like National Geographic, MSNBC.com the Knight Center for International Media and The Nature Conservancy supported me to tell this great story of hope and reversals. I am so grateful to them and the people that allowed me access, specifically the wonderful, generous people of Dvur Kralov Zoo and Ol Pejeta Nature Conservancy. There are so many people to thank and the woman who made it all possible is Elodie Sampere of Ol Pejeta. I am eternally indebted to her for her persistence and generous spirit. Berry White and Pete Morkel are the veterinarians who were incredibly patient as I followed them in what must have been one of the more sleep deprived moments of their lives. There are so many people to thank for allowing me the privilege to witness this incredible moment.

On my last day, moments before I was set to drive back to Nairobi, the skies darkened and it felt like a monsoon in the middle of the savannah. Within minutes, the rhinos responded like children, running as fast as they could and then flopping their 2 ton bodies into a belly dive in the most glorious mud bath. Sure I don’t want to be too anthromorphic about such things, but they looked like they were smiling. That moment alone was worth all that it took to be there. The fact that this is the beginning of a renewed interest in keeping and repopulating parts of Africa with this magnificent species, whose only curse was to be born with a price on its head, is all the inspiration I need.

The rhinos are doing well and adapting quickly. If you want to keep updated on how they are or find out how to visit them, go to Ol Pejeta’s website.

Flight for Survival: Rhinos go back to Africa

View the story at msnbc.com

They are huge but gentle, lumbering beasts and there are only eight left on the entire planet. Scientists believe the magnificent Northern White rhinos are nearly extinct. In a last ditch effort to save this species from extinction, the Lewa Conservancy in Kenya cut a deal to airlift the last four breeding age animals from the Czech Zoo to live “free” on the savannas of Kenya. You can read more about the trip in my blog.

Where can I find interviews about your career?

This is a blog for Nikon Professional Services where I talk about my style and equipment used on assignment.

http://nps.nikonimaging.com/members/ami_vitale/

The talented Steve Casimiro, a photographer and editor for National Geographic’s Adventure magazine has created a wonderful blog called the Adventure Life. I was honored that he invited me for this interview.

http://www.theadventurelife.org/2009/07/ami-vitales-beautiful-cultures-and-powerful-documentary/

Field Notes from a National Geographic story I did on the Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata, India.
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/04/kolkata-rickshaws/vitale-field-notes

This is an advertisement I did for Nikon using the D300s camera and video capabilities.
http://imaging.nikon.com/products/imaging/lineup/microsite/d300s/special/en/index.html#

Here is an interview I did about convergence of stills and video for the Poynter Institute. http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=2&aid=172745

This is an interview by Susan Markisz for the Digital Journalist, a virtual online almanac for visual journalists created by Dirck Halstead. It was written when I was just beginning my career as a photojournalist in 2003.
http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0301/av_intro.html

Blueeyes Magazine is an online documentary photography magazine devoted to publishing new long-term project work. It is a labor of love created by a dedicated group of people including John Loomis, Chris Vivion, Matthew Ratajczak, Seth Bro and Jill Thomas.

http://blueeyesmagazine.com/index.php?/essay/indiv/portfolio_vitale/

This was one of the very first interviews I gave for Photobetty.com, which was a true labor of love started by the legendary and lovely Stephanie Sinclair and carried on by Serena Stucke, who is also an incredibly dedicated and talented photographer and editor.
http://www.photobetty.com/amivitale

This is a comprehensive gallery of many fine art gallery photographers exhibited together along with photojournalists.
http://www.pixiport.com/Gallery-GC66.htm

James Robinson is a passionate photographer and has some wonderful interviews here.
http://jrphoto.wordpress.com/spotlight-interview-photojournalist-ami-vitale/

Eight Ways to change the World, A photography exhibition on the Millennium Development Goals by Panos Pictures, in association with seven charities.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/millenniumgoals/graphic/0,,1563959,00.html