New work from Montana

Aspiring photographers often ask me where they might go to find the best stories. My answer is always the same – get to know your own backyard, what’s close at hand, rather than traveling around the world just to capture images of something foreign or exotic.  My rationale is that if you can tell these stories of every day life and focus on what we have in common rather than the obvious differences, then you will succeed as a storyteller.

Ironically, I have rarely listened to my own advice and the past dozen years has seen me crisscross the globe playing witness to civil unrest, turmoil, and violence in over 85 countries.  I broke my pattern in 2010 when I moved to Montana and have tried to base myself in this beautiful but austere landscape.

The images I am now able to create tell the story about our deep connection to land, the importance we place in stewardship, and a vanishing way of life in the American West. The folks whom I have got to know are remarkable in their fortitude, work ethics, and the neighborliness they exhibit everyday.  It is not an easy story but one that requires patience and persistence to birth – and yet I believe it is as rewarding in the telling as the more sensational events I have had the opportunity to cover.

Check out this month’s Viewfinder in Orion magazine and the New Yorker lens blog to see some of my images from  home.

National Geographic Channel in Sri Lanka

The cameras have been turned and I’m on a new National Geographic Channel tv show called “Mission Covershot” shot in Sri Lanka!  The show captures the journey of eight photographers as they compete to get the perfect covershot  and the chance of having their photo on the cover of National Geographic magazine. I had the pleasure of being a lead judge on an esteemed panel that included leading Indian director Nagesh Kukunoor and National Geographic Magazine Traveler photography editor Ashima Narain. The lovely and charismatic Shibani Dandekar joined us as the host of the show.  I hope the series will not only be entertaining but also educate audiences and aspiring photographers about what it takes to make powerful photographs and stories. It may look easy to carry a camera and make beautiful images but there is a lot of hard work behind each photograph. And most of the time, working hard is much more important than raw talent. Millions of people can take nice pictures but you need to also have intelligence, ethics, sensitivity and know how treat people with respect. So tune in on the Nat Geo channel Monday nights at 10 pm from March 25. Click HERE to see a promo video.

Workshop in Sri Lanka August 9-18, 2013

Join renowned photojournalist Ami Vitale for an enlightening photography workshop on the island nation of Sri Lanka. She just finished a ten part TV series with National Geographic Channel that is currently airing in Asia. This summer she will lead a small and intimate workshop to “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean” with its abundant wildlife and ancient culture.  During the trip, you will have the opportunity to photograph and get daily critiques from Ami as she guides you to take your passion for photography and make a difference in your life’s work.  The workshop will focus on how to take strong still images and turn them into compelling stories that make a difference. CLICK HERE for a full itinerary.

One of the highlights of the trip will be exclusive photographic access to theKandy/Esala Festival. At this impressive festival, Buddhist traditions are performed in costumes with extravagant decorations and elegant detailing. In addition to front-row views for the festival processions, we will have private access to the dancers and performers as they prepare for the festivities.

We will also enjoy  exclusiveaccess in the Pinnewala elephant orphanage. A conservation project for orphaned and injured elephants, it is the only shelter of its kind in the entire world.  We will also visit Yala National Park, undoubtedly the best place to spot leopards in Asia, if not the world. We will meet locals, visit the centuries old Dutch Galle Fort and photograph the iconic stilt fisherman that Steve McCurry made famous.

If you are a photographer interested in how to create memorable photographic stories and multimedia presentations, make sure you attend Ami’s powerful and timely workshop. The location and knowledge gained will make this a once in a lifetime experience.

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 HERE

New Work from Turkey

I had the privilege to work on a book and exhibit project in Cappadocia, Turkey. It’s rare to have these kinds of opportunities, especially in today’s climate. I am grateful to Zaman for commissioning us, Selahattin Sevi who edited the project and photographer Kürşat Bayhan patiently guided me through Cappadocia. The book is gorgeous! Twenty-four of my favorite living photographers and I documented different aspects of life, culture and the beauty of Turkey. The exhibit and book includes the stunning work of Jane Evelyn Atwood, Bruno Barbey, Carolyn Drake, Nikos Economopoulos, Ed Kashi, Anthony Suau, Reza, Steve McCurry and so many other truly great photographers. There are also interviews of all the photographers online.

New Interview for PROOF magazine

See the full interview here:

Few can boast credentials such as this: seventy five plus countries covering civil unrest, poverty, violent conflict and social injustice; photographs exhibited all over the world and published in National Geographic, Adventure, Geo, Newsweek, Time, Smithsonian amongst other international magazines and news sources; global recognition including the Photographer of the Year International Award, the Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism, Lucie awards, the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding  Reporting, and the Magazine Photographer of the Year award by the National Press Photographers Association.  As a career photojournalist, Ami Vitale, backed by her impressive work and awards, embodies the dynamism of journalism in today’s world.

And yet there is a deeply compassionate and humanitarian side to her work that is rare in an industry driven by headlines and increasingly hashtags.  This is immediately apparent from many of her works that convey the subtle and surreal beauty of humanity that is often muted by mainstream media sensationalism.  See for example her photographs of rickshaw pullers in India.

More recently, Ami has ventured into film-making.  After getting her Masters at the University of Miami’s School of Communication, she has been working with Ripple Effect Images, an organization of scientists, writers, photographers and filmmakers on a mission to create powerful and persuasive stories illustrating the very specific problems women in developing countries face.  Her most recent documentary, “Bangladesh: A Climate Trap,” centers upon an issue that has largely been ignored by most of the developed world, namely, climate change-driven migration in the world’s most impoverished countries.

You’ve travelled and lived in so many places, your work is incredible and covers a wide range of topics.  Why do you do what you do—what drives and motivates you?  What inspires you?  And what do you ultimately hope your photographs will achieve?

I began my career covering some of the most horrific dramas that were playing out at that time.  I went to the Balkans, Angola, Palestine and lesser known places like Kashmir, Gujarat in India or even places you may really never have heard of likeCasamance in West Africa.  All of them were equally nasty and my reason for going was to show the au dience the brutality that was going on.  You might expect me to say that the world is full of tortuous places and as journalists, our role is to expose those dark corners of the world. Yes there is a role for that, without a doubt, but I believe that we have a greater responsibility, an obligation, to also illuminate the things that unite us as human beings rather than simply emphasize our differences

How do you choose what type of topics and issues to cover?  What prompted you to go into filmmaking and documentaries?

I lived in India for almost 6 years and nearly 4 of those years were spent primarily in Kashmir. It was not an assignment but after my first visit there, it captured my heart and each year I found ways to fund my work there. I received several grants and it became a very important piece of my life and my understanding of the world. I feel the only way to understand the complexities that exist in all of our cultures and conflicts is by staying for a long period of time. The problem with most mainstream media, as I see it, is the ephemeral nature of it. Journalists never stay long enough to show the multitude of viewpoints that exist. Parachuting in and then leaving is simply not an option to me. I think that only contributes to stereotyping and sensational coverage of these very complex histories and stories.

The medium I work in is changing and video is now playing a much bigger role in what we do. Cameras like the one I carry can shoot hd video and it can enhance our abilities as storytellers.  This is already playing a big role in my future but I don’t think I would have had the courage to take the leap into shooting video without one small fib, to Nikon, when they called and asked if I knew anything about making videos.  “Yes of course”, I replied instantly, knowing nothing about moving images or how to even operate the camera. I assumed I’d have time to learn before the shoot but was surprised when they sent the D300s camera only the night before my trip to India began. I frantically studied the manual on the 28 hour long journey and arrived terrified and wondering if I had just made the biggest mistake of my life. This is the film I made there, an homage to India.

If I had not had the opportunity, I probably never would have made the leap but I’m so grateful I did. In a time when media is struggling and searching for a new path, I’m finding that I am busier than ever telling meaningful stories in new ways for a variety of outlets.

Last year, I went back to school to study film and created my first documentary film which just premiered at the Jackson Hole Film Festival. I also am doing a variety of short films for new clients. It’s an exciting time to be a photographer and journalist and this new skill can create more opportunity for all of us.  The old models of business are in crisis, but opportunities lie ahead. We must redefine ourselves as technologies create more opportunities.

As someone who has witnessed and documented so many social injustices, what are the major lessons or insights that you take away from your experiences?

We cannot afford to view the world through an optic of fear and hate because if we only tell stories through our own paradigm of values, we justify the existing divisions in our world. I truly believe that change will never happen unless we have empathy for those who have a different viewpoint than our own.

What advice can you give to aspiring journalists and photographers?

In the beginning of my career, I had a choice whether to take every assignment that came my way or to be thoughtful about the kinds of stories I worked on. I realized it was more important to build up a body of work rather than to make more money shooting assignments that I was not necessarily passionate about. Now I can look back, and see that it was important to take that risk. It allowed me to create a body of work and content that defined the issues and subjects that I cared about. Whether you’ve been in this one-year or ten years, I believe it’s very important to commit to one story or issue or place. There are a million great photographers and the technology is there to make everybody feel like a great photographer. However, the challenge is to be consistently good and to be able to reveal more than everyone else on the subject you are working on.  I think many people mistake taking pictures of exotic and beautiful places as being committed but it’s not enough just to travel and take pretty images. You have to go deep and show something original and unexpected, something that teaches and surprises.

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,

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.

Speaking in NYC

For anyone in NY, I’ll be speaking November 1, 2010 at 42 West 18th Street, New York at 5:30pm on transitioning into making films as a still photographer. During this evening’s presentation, I’ll show work from India, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone and how photographers can find a niche in today’s changing world of photojournalism.With media outlets going through rapid transitions, this is a perfect time to find opportunity in technological changes to tell the stories to new audiences once thought unreachable. If you are a photographer interested in how to create memorable photographic stories and multimedia presentations, this talk is meant to inspire you.

Budapest Baths

Budapest, Hungary has long been renowned for its health spas and thermal springs but recently it has been discovered that many of these springs are connected underground by a huge “thermal lake.” Divers are currently exploring the lake and the city is planning to ask for World Heritage status and may open the lake to the public. The ancient Roman settlement Aquincum, located on the outskirts of Budapest is the site of the very first hot mineral water bath complex.