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.

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

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.

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/

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

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

Israel/Palestine

A young teenage Palestinian couple defy a curfew and dance together during their wedding ceremony  in the West Bank city of Nablus. A British non-governmental agency recently reported that Palestinians are currently living in a state of extreme, worsening poverty and fear for their future. Almost three-quarters of Palestinians now live on less than US$2 a day, below the United Nations poverty line.