B&H Feature: Ami Vitale Advocates for Mother Earth

B&H published an in-depth feature on Ami Vitale, covering the story of her career trajectory along with advice for other photographers and information on the gear she prefers. It emphasizes her mission to share stories of hope and to encourage people everywhere to take action to preserve the world for future generations.

Read the full feature here.

National Geographic Storytellers Seminar

The National Geographic Storytellers Summit is a multi-day celebration of story, featuring the photographers, filmmakers, journalists, and data visualizers who witness the major events of our time, illuminate critical issues, and inspire action.

Photographer and National Geographic Explorer Ami Vitale delivered the talk, “How to Photograph Hope.” Ami has covered conflict, violence, and heartbreak—like photographing the last Northern white rhino during his dying moments—but she’s also made it her mission to find and capture stories of hope.

Bust Magazine

The January/February 2019 print edition of Bust Magazine featured a story on Ami Vitale’s work with pandas, “Getting the Perfect Panda Photo Requires a Pee-Soaked Costume: This Photographer Tells Us How She Does It.” Ami shares behind the scenes information about how she made the photographs for her 2018 book, Panda Love, including the need for her to wear a panda suit that smelled like panda urine, to keep the bears she was photographing from habituating to human presence, as they were being raised for release back into the wild.

Though the number of pandas in the wild has risen in recent years thanks to various conservation efforts, especially in China, pandas remain a threatened species for a couple of reasons: their natural habitat keeps shrinking due to deforestation, and they’re hard to breed in captivity. Vitale believes that the recent incline in the panda population is a sign of hope for all of us, though, even as we’re bombarded daily with alarming headlines about climate change. “The story of the panda is a perfect metaphor for what we can do to turn things around,” she says. “We are at a turning point and the world is fragile and vulnerable. The choice is ours now. I want to tell people not to feel helpless and remind them that the power of individuals to make a difference is real.”

Read the full article here.

Momondo: A Photojournalist With a Vision

Momondo published an interview with Ami Vitale about her work traveling the world, covering stories that unite humanity – be it endangered animals, local communities or social unrest.

Ami has spent the past 18 years traveling from country to country, telling one story at a time. Whether it’s social unrest in Asia, the last northern white rhinos in Kenya or the award-winning photo story of the world’s most iconic endangered animal, the giant panda – Ami has lived in mud huts, contracted malaria and even donned a panda suit, all in keeping her philosophy of “living the story.” Throughout the years, Ami has kept returning to the same places, engaging with the local communities. She has made it her mission to tell stories that challenge existing prejudices.

Read the full interview here.

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.

 

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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.”]

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The Place Where God Was Born.

National Geographic has posted our story on the Dene First Nation people HERE.

The ancestral home of the Dene First Nation people is a landscape of unfathomable vastness. 52,000 square kilometers span this region, south of the artic circle, along the Nanuvet and Northwest Territories of Canada. The place is replete with musk ox, grizzly bear, wolves, arctic grayling, tens of thousands of caribou, and billions of biting flies. The-lew-dezeth, the wide and frigid river that flows here is for the Dene, the place where God began. Yet, for most contemporary Dene, the Thelon Game Sanctuary, as we call it, is untouchable.

Few people have ever heard of this place and even fewer have chartered plane or boat to find their way deep into the middle of the middle of somewhere. The pressures of modern life have taken the Dene further from the land, and even as the Thelon still embodies so purely the balance of fecundity and decay, it is under threat.  While this area is protected on paper, it has little management or funding, and its borders are being chipped away. Diamond, gold and uranium mining interests see ample opportunity within its untrammeled spaces.

In August of 2011, I joined 3 scientists from The Nature Conservancy, seven young Akaitcho Dene—ages 4-24—and two Dene guides for a 2-week, 200-kilometer journey on the Upper Thelon River. The Nature Conservancy wanted to support this expedition because it believes that these young leaders will speak out for protection of the Thelon. For many of them, this trip was a reprieve from a high technology, low-income world, where Caribou has been replaced by KFC.

Moving through the landscape with the young Dene, I was struck with how they thrived, even in the midst of a 3-day storm; beneath the nearly constant onslaught of mosquitos and black flies; and through a 5-mile portage, carrying 600 pounds of food. They built fires, paddled, fished, slept and ate enshrouded in bug suits. I heard no complaints for the duration of the trip, and the only tears shed came once from 4-year old Hawk, after talking to his mother on a SAT phone.

This trip was not for the faint of heart, yet I felt the heartbeat of my companions so strongly. Their spiritedness propelled us along as much as the water. Preparing artic grayling, goose and caribou was a communal effort embraced with the sort of primal respect that comes from a people who have walked the land for 30,000 years.

When we returned, our Dene companions seemed lost in the modern world of reality TV and pop culture. But, they kept moving, like the caribou.That land knows when its people are hungry. The Dene of Lutsel K’e and the Thelon share one voice. It may be, that the greatest hope for survival will come when they raise this voice from the rock and mud thick shores of The-lew-dezeth.

The Sub-Arctic Adventure Begins

I’m off for the Thelon, close the the Arctic circle with a group of indigenous children from the Dene’ tribe and will be incommunicado except for a blog we will have on The Nature Conservancy website called Cool Green Science—check it out. blog.nature.org

Naturally, I’m very excited for this epic adventure. For three weeks, we will be on canoes and venture into unchartered territory that the tribe believes is the place where God began his work. There will likely be bears, caribou and an un-Godly amount of mosquitoes as big as helicopters but worth it for the privilege of seeing this pristine environment.

Because we have to carry everything, I’m trying to stay light but somehow, it’s never light enough. This time I’m adding the Nikkor 200-400mm for any wildlife we might run into in addition to my usual Nikon setup: the 24-70mm, 70-200mm, a couple D7000 bodies and one D3s. I know I’ll be gritting my teeth as I lug this up in high altitudes but so worth it, right?

I’m also taking the Goalzero Sherpa to power everything and already experimented with it in Africa recently. Worked like a dream and super sturdy for the kind of traveling I do. Lastly, I have a small 10 inch notebook and 2 hard drives to back everything up. Gone are the days of film but I’m embracing all the advances in technology over the past 10 years. Its nothing short of a miracle. I’ll be creating short multimedia stories and making photographs along the way.

Now, I must finish packing. Just got home 2 days ago from a remarkable trip in the Brazilian Amazon… Will blog about that when I return and post new pix from the last few months.

Bangladesh: On the Frontlines of Climate Change

I was in Bangladesh telling the story of how this country is on the frontlines of climate change. I have a feature length documentary coming out soon, but here is a short I did for Oxfam about how one village is being impacted by the changing weather and what they are doing to adapt. The full length film is showing in Portland, Maine at the Portland Film Fest, Saturday, October 4, 2012.

http://www.oxfam.org/en/grow/campaigns/climatechange/mamtaz-story-fight-for-climate-justice-bay-of-bengal

Right now Bangladesh is a catastrophe playing out in slow motion.  It may appear far away, but our planet’s ecosystem is an intricate web. Whether it becomes a model for the future or one of the great human tragedies of our time depends on the choices we make now.   Its destiny will be determined not necessarily by rising sea levels, but by the behavior of its citizens, neighbors and outside powers.   Bangladesh could be disastrous scene or it just might be a model of how humanity copes with extreme environmental changes.

The village of South Tetulbaria in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, relies on fishing but climate change threatens this way of life. In November 2010 Mamtaz Begum, a young widow from Barguna, stood up and demanded justice for vulnerable communities near to the Bay of Bengal at a ‘Climate Tribunal’ in the capital, Dhaka.

The climate tribunals are developing the idea that those responsible for climate change, can and should be held accountable through the law. Specifically they explore the possibilities for using national laws to hold governments and other private actors accountable for the impacts of the changing climate on vulnerable communities.

Learn more about Oxfam’s Climate Change Campaignhttp://www.oxfam.org/climate