IndieVoices Campaign a Success!

Thanks to the generosity and support from an extraordinary community, my IndieVoices crowd funding campaign has been successful and we are on our way to creating a very important project! I am grateful to everyone who contributed and shared this story.  The New York Times and National Geographic Proof also featured it on their websites.

Commercial poaching organized by sophisticated heavily armed criminal networks and fueled by heavy demand from newly minted millionaires in emerging markets is devastating the amazing mega-fauna of the African plains. It is entirely possible, even likely, that if the current trajectory of death continues, rhinos, elephants and a host of lesser know plains animals will be functionally extinct in our lifetimes.

Much needed attention has been focused on the plight of wildlife and the conflict between heavily armed poacher and increasingly militarized wildlife rangers. However, the compelling story of indigenous communities caught in the cross-­hairs of the poaching wars, and who may hold the key to saving Africa’s great animals, is largely untold.

If you’re still interested in supporting this, its not too late. Please get in touch with me personally. Your contributions will go back into these communities and these majestic creatures.

You can also help by contributing directly to the powerful work of The Lewa Wildlife ConservancyNorthern Rangelands Trust and The Nature Conservancy in Africa who fight everyday to protect the natural world we all share.

Thank you so much!

In the photo above, Yusuf, a keeper at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in central Kenya, slept among three orphaned baby rhinos. The calf he rested his head on was orphaned when poachers killed his mother 50 miles away.

 

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

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.”]

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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.

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