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