Recognition for Pandas Gone Wild

Ami’s panda images for National Geographic earned third prize for science and natural history picture story in Pictures of the Year International second prize for stories in the Nature category in this year’s World Press Photo Contest, and are shortlisted for the 2017 Sony World Photography Awards

The contests were covered by dozens of media including the BBC, The AtlanticYahoo News, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic Australia, The Express Tribune, the Daily Mail, and DigifotoPro, where she also gave interviews.

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.

 

Pandamania Part II

Incredible news for one of conservation’s greatest ambassadors. As of September 4th, the giant panda is no longer on the endangered species list.  It’s a testament, in part, to the incredible team I had the honor of documenting.  It’s no easy task raising captive born pandas and releasing them into the wild.  Scientists and conservationists have had to crack the code for breeding pandas and create habitat and space for them to roam. There is still so much to do to protect the panda, but for now we can celebrate the people behind this incredible effort. It is heart-warming to see these magical bears, an icon both to China and to conservation, returning to the wild.

I was thrilled to give interviews about my National Geographic story, including CCTVNPR’s Weekend EditionUPROXX, Vice, Huffington Post, the How to Do Everything podcastMother Nature Network, Global Times, L’IllustreTech Insider, and Business Insider.

How Do You Get Close to a Panda? Surprise Answer: Panda Suits

After my National Geographic cover story appeared in August, many were fascinated by the scented panda suits! I talked with a number of media personnel, such as The Creators Project (part of Vice), NPR’s How To Do Everything podcast, Business Insider, and My Modern Met, about what it takes to get candid shots of these elusive animals.

As a photographer, I often try to look as little like a photographer as I can and this costume was definitely an extraordinary example. The disguise prevents pandas from getting accustomed to their human caregivers and allows me to get close to my subjects.    The suits are scented with panda urine and feces, which is not as gross as it sounds.  It smells like bamboo and something similar to wet puppies.  But I have to say, when you wake up every morning and put on an outfit somewhere between a mascot and a bank robber, you know you’re really living the story.

Pandas Gone Wild

I am excited to share our panda story, now on newsstands in the August issue of National Geographic Magazine. Tremendous gratitude to the incredible team in China working to protect these magical bears and to my colleagues at National Geographic for giving me the opportunity to share this incredible story.

This journey turned out to be one of the most unimaginable explorations I’ve ever had. It is not that anyone hasn’t seen a panda; we all have. But after going to China multiple times, getting to know the people, getting to understand the pandas and learning to really think like a panda, it kind of blew my mind.

In a region where bad environmental news is common, the giant panda might prove to be the exception and is a testament to the perseverance and efforts of Chinese scientists and conservationists. By breeding and releasing pandas, augmenting existing populations and protecting habitat, they may be on their way to successfully saving their most famous ambassador and in the process put the wild back into an icon. Pandas’ irresistible power make them important ambassadors for ALL endangered species.

The images and the behind-the-scenes story of my work documenting pandas over three years were also covered by UPROXX, Vice, Huffington Post, Mother Nature Network, Tech Insider, and Business Insider.

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.

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.

Montana Ranching, Redefined.

jblNew IMAGES HERE:More and more, people want to know where their steak comes from and how it was raised.  Spurred by growing concern over beef’s environmental impact and the long-term viability of their livelihood, a cohort of Montana ranchers is working to integrate ecological practices into livestock management.

Over the last year, I’ve been spending time with ranchers to understand what it means to ranch in this day and age. Is it possible that cows can be good for the landscape and ranching can still respect the animal, wild or domestic? The ranchers share a deep love of their livelihood and the land. Together, they work with The Nature Conservancy on an integrative conservation effort in the Centennial Valley, to preserve the integrity of the land in a way that benefits both people and wildlife.

The folks at Yellowstone Grassfed Beef believe that by mimicking the behaviors of wild herbivores, calving in the spring and intensely grazing an area for a brief period, before moving on—rangeland health will improve.  These practices reveal a deeper story—one of layered realities and changing times. Resilience, inventiveness and adaptability are not foreign concepts to these ranchers, nor is living at the interface of wilderness. Yet, does the value of what they know and the work they do translate to the dinner plates of those they feed?

The website of J-L Ranch here.

Check out the photos at NBC.com HERE