I am excited to share this collaboration with the extraordinary artist Mantra, my wonderful friends at both Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Sarara Camp and National Geographic, who conspired to make this wild dream into a reality! For many years, I have been using photography and filmmaking to tell the powerful stories of this community in northern Kenya. I wanted to use other mediums and think about ways to inspire creativity and pride around protecting our planet and the creatures we coexist with.
Reteti is the home of the first indigenous owned and run elephant sanctuary in Africa. Rock Paintings are the oldest form of storytelling. The Samburu elders living here guided us to a place that holds powerful symbolism. THIS ROCK was once used by elephant poachers as a place to hide but now, it is a place for community members, elders and visitors to gather. Mantra is the extraordinary artist who brought my two dimensional photo of a wild elephant from Namunyak to life using water based paints. My concept was to create something from nature that was meaningful and ephemeral. The painting will not last forever, but the memory of what has been created in this community will always live on.
Mantra is a self taught painter who has been painting in the streets since 2008. I was honored that he agreed to bring his genius talent and come to Namunyak for this wild idea. The team at Sarara Camp rallied together with friends at Reteti to build scaffolding and Mantra painted this photo free style in one day. Miracles can happen and we can all do more to make sure our children experience the beauty and wonder of this world.
I am working on another project and looking for financial support. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in helping me with more initiatives to bring together stories, art and conservation. I believe these stories and art shape us and can change the way we see each other. I invite you to be a part of it.
I am excited to release a new, behind the scenes film on my work in Kenya with Reteti Elephant Sanctuary for World Elephant Day. I hope it gives a glimpse into the powerful story of a community coming together to protect and save these magnificent creatures. I am grateful to Katy at Sprout Films for her sensitivity and commitment and Nikon for their endless support. Hurry, there is just one day left to buy a print or enter and win a Nikon D5600 camera and 2 lenses, Think Tank Photo camera bag and a print of one of the adorable elephants at at Reteti at amivitale.com/elephants
National Geographic published “How Women Photographers Access Worlds Hidden from Men” in celebration of their female photographers on International Women’s Day. In the piece, the women reflect on how gender influences their work. In an industry dominated by men, female photographers face additional hurdles to move their careers forward, but they also have an advantage when it comes to accessing personal stories of women around the world.
The story featured Ami Vitale’s photograph of one of the first women keepers at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Mary Lengees, affectionately stroking the head of a baby elephant, highlighting Mary’s devotion to caring for the animals. Ami reflects on the photograph, writing, “Though she and the women who work for her encounter resistance, the team at Reteti is united in its mission to rescue abandoned elephant calves, nurse them back to health, and reintroduce them to the wild. It requires vigilance and round-the-clock care, but Lowuekuduk’s passion for saving these 200-plus-pound babies knows no bounds. In a world where we focus only on the challenges and things that divide us, it’s important also to talk about the solutions.”
See the other photographs shared by female National Geographic photographers and read about their experiences telling women’s stories here.
B&H published an in-depth feature on Ami Vitale, covering the story of her career trajectory from conflict photographer to documenting the natural world. Thanks to one well-timed assignment focusing on people’s relationship to nature in remote locations worldwide, Ami’s whole photographic career shifted.
“That chance for reflection, to look at the natural world, helped me put all the pieces together,” Vitale says of this project. “I realized that all the conflicts I had been covering were ultimately about our resources. That the biggest story, which I had been missing, was our natural world and what we’re doing to it. It was one of the most transformative moments in my career.”
After receiving a Master’s degree in filmmaking, the scope of Ami’s work expanded further, which the story explores along with sharing her 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.
At Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya, the first-ever community-owned and run sanctuary in all of Africa, rescued orphaned elephants are looked after by local keepers from the Samburu community. They are lovingly rehabilitated and raised with the ultimate goal to reintroduce them back into the wild. The sanctuary isn’t just about saving elephants; it’s about breaking down stereo-types and redefining wildlife management. When people realize that they can benefit from healthy elephant populations, they’re proud to take care of wildlife.
Reteti is also empowering young Samburu women to be the first-ever women elephant keepers in all of Africa. At first, the community didn’t think there was a place for women in the workplace. Now, the success of these women elephant keepers is unlocking new possibilities, setting a powerful example for young girls hoping to pursue their dreams. It’s also changing how the community relates to elephants. Schoolchildren who have never seen an elephant before or who were afraid of elephants visit Reteti and experience these elephants up close, and they realize they can grow up to be a veterinarian or an elephant keeper.
In the past the local people weren’t much interested in trying to save elephants. A rescued calf had to be transported to Kenya’s only orphanage, some 240 miles away, near Nairobi. If successfully rehabilitated, the youngster would have to be released into Tsavo National Park, with no hope of re-unification with its original herd way to the north. But now, elephant orphans can be returned to their home ground, where they’ll have a good chance of reconnecting with their relatives.
What’s happening there, without fanfare, is nothing less than the beginnings of a transformation in the way the Samburu people relate to wild animals they have long feared. This oasis where orphans grow up, learning to be wild so that one day they can rejoin their herds, is as much about the people as it is about elephants.
Reteti operates in partnership with Conservation International who provide critical operational support and work to scale the Reteti community-centered model to create lasting impacts worldwide.
Ami Vitale worked with Instagram to create a beautiful film about the work happening at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. Instagram featured it on its new IGTV channel for World Elephant Day, where it was viewed over 630,000 times.
Ami was named one of the three finalists for the 2018 Wildscreen Photo Story Panda Award. To win this award is to have your work judged as one of the best examples in the natural world storytelling genre by the industry’s most respected and accomplished leaders.
I have been named as one of fifty in InStyle Magazine’s Badass Women, a series celebrating women who show up, speak up and get things done. I believe all of us are “badasses” in our own way, but it is still an unbelievable honor to have been included, alongside so many inspiring women, including Jane Goodall, Christiane Amanpour, Stephanie Sinclair and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. See the full list here.
Further, for the InStyle August issue honoring spectacular women, I had the chance to interview one of my favorite Badass Women, Sasha Dorothy Lowuekuduk, Reteti Elephant Sanctuary’s first female head keeper and one of the first indigenous Samburu women keepers in all of Africa. I’m so proud of everyone at Reteti where all the women and men are working to not only protect elephants, but are also breaking stereotypes and pushing the boundaries. Read my full Q&A with Dorothy at InStyle.com.
“It’s one thing to know the planet is in crisis. It’s another to see what that looks like.”
I am proud to be a member of WeTransfer’s Union of Concerned Photographers along with Lucy Pike, Mandy Barker, Frans Lanting, Luca Locatelli, & Joel Redman. We are a group of photographers dedicated to using the power of imagery to underline the urgency of environmental concerns. Learn more and get involved at we.tl/UCP
You can read my story on WeTransfer’s Union of Concerned Photographers website here.