The Guardian Warriors of Northern Kenya

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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. 

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

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.

National Geographic Workshop in Santa Fe

I’m looking forward to teaching a multimedia workshop at the Santa Fe workshops from February 17-23, 2013.   This week long workshop will be intense and challenging but  ultimately very rewarding. I will be exploring  how to make the jump from stills to video and will focus on helping the students tell more compelling visual stories using video, audio and still imagery.  I will also delve into the process of getting work published from first crafting the initial proposal, finding a storyline, gaining access to subjects and finally editing the work into a cohesive story. Participants will be expected to document a short story and edit it together during the week. I will also talk about the business itself and address issues like writing proposals, understanding copyright, contracts and model releases. This is a workshop about producing real reportage, getting honest feedback, and ultimately how to get work published.

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

Nikon Professional Services BLOG

Nikon recently interviewed me for their Nikon Professional Services blog. Here is an excerpt.

Traveling the world and moving from one locale to the next, “clicking” pictures of beautiful places and lovely people. You may ask yourself: “How hard can it be?” Let me tell you from experience: it’s a tough job if you are serious about it, and you have to be serious about it if you want to make a living at it. The truth is, very little “clicking” happens. That is about ten percent of the job. The rest is sheer hard work, planning, researching, editing, negotiating and finding unique ways to tell stories. The trick is to get access to places that no one else can get to, and the secret to this is to know your subject better than anyone else. So my advice to those who dream about this is to find a story close to you – maybe even in your backyard – and make it yours. You don’t need to travel abroad. What you do need to do, however, is tell a story better than anyone else can, using your own unique perspective. If you find your own story and show complete and utter dedication, then you will find a way to carve out a career.

To read more,

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

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.

Covering Conflicts

With the events unfolding across the Middle East, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma contacted myself and several other journalists who have worked in conflict zones to better understand what you can do to cover volatile street protests without getting injured. Here are my comments and please look at this link to see some intelligent advice from a  few well-known, seasoned journalists who have collectively covered many of the most dangerous hot spots on the globe.

1) First find a safe place that gives a clear view of what is happening without putting you in the middle of the fighting. For example, go on top of a building above to analyze what is happening below. Take time to watch how the police/military   and crowds are reacting. Do they have live ammunition? Are events escalating quickly? Its important to understand what might happen and how to find a safe place to cover unfolding events.

2) Go with someone who knows the city well if you do not.  Know where there are some exit points. For example, don’t get caught in between a crowd and the police on a bridge. There is nowhere to escape if it turns violent. If it’s in a city, look for doorways and alleys to slip into if you need a quick escape.

3) Understand there is no reasoning with mobs. My own personal experience was in Palestine when a mob of angry young men thought I might be an agent of a foreign government. The only thing that saved me was because I had spent the day with a group of women in their home and they saw the angry mob and came to rescue me. Because they felt they knew me and trusted me, they got involved. If I had only showed up to cover this event and had known anyone, there is a good chance I would not have made it out alive. Mobs are angry, there is no reasoning with them and they often want to see blood in order to avenge someone.

4) Understand visual cliches and try to get past stereotypes in a fast-breaking story. For example, I will often try to find quieter ways of telling a violent, sensational story. The violence often overshadows the deeper message.

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!