Photographer Spotlight: Ami Vitale

Credit: Ami Vitale 
Hamid Amirani - 3.14.19

A regular series profiling a few of the esteemed photographers whose work is showcased here on the Cecilia website, asking what they carry on a photo shoot, their approach to their craft, and what advice they can offer to anyone wishing to pursue photography.

Credit: Ami Vitale 

Ami Vitale has already packed more into her career than most people manage in a whole lifetime. The Nikon Ambassador and National Geographic magazine photographer has visited more than 100 countries, had her work exhibited in museums and galleries across the world, and has won multiple accolades for her work highlighting issues affecting women, the environment and wildlife, including the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Reporting. She was named by Instyle magazine as one of 50 Badass Women, a series that shone a light on women working proactively to achieve great things, and has been awarded Magazine Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association and the International Photographer of the Year prize. She was recently the subject of Mission Cover Shot, a series on the National Geographic Channel.

Ami is driven by her heartfelt passion for nature and all its components, be it wildlife under threat or women struggling to survive in harsh conditions. As she says on her website, she sees photography as "a tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures, communities, and countries."

Her deep concern for animals resulted in her recent bestselling book, Panda Love, documenting the lives of pandas. She even dressed in a panda outfit to immerse herself as much as possible in the environment! Her 2018 National Geographic article on a community in Kenya protecting elephants won her 1st Prize from World Press Photos, making her a five-time recipient of their awards.

Ami's current camera gear comprises the Nikon Z7 and D850, and 24-70mm, 12-24mm, and 80-400mm lenses. "In general, I like to travel as lightly as possible. I need to be able to respond quickly, as I cover events and stories as they are happening, so the less gear I have, the quicker and more nimble I can be." 

"I also think less gear allows you to get closer to people and creates more intimacy in the images," she adds.

Ami's gift for capturing people and their stories are exemplified in this beautiful photo.

Girls in Jaipur, in the state of Rajasthan, India, stand at the bottom of an ancient step well that once was full of water. 
Credit: Ami Vitale

Ami explains, "Today, the well is nearly empty and highlights the question: as water becomes scarcer on the planet, how far will they have to walk to find it? Because it is girls in most of the developing world who bear the greatest burden as resources become scarcer. They must search farther and farther afield for water and other resources."

This ongoing problem of a shortage of drinkable water in the developing world led Ami to make A Climate Trap, a film that looks at climate change in Bangladesh and how women have to travel great distances for water - "some women walk up to 11 hours a day for poor quality water."

Ami's work has been defined by her philosophy that one must live the story being told, and it's that which informs her advice to aspiring photographers. "My best advice is to pick a story in your own backyard, something you know about, and go deeper than anyone else. Spend years on one story. If you feel compelled to travel, one way to get beyond surface images is to plan a trip to one location, several times, if you can." She stresses the importance of getting up close authentically. "Successful pictures of people almost never happen from a distance. Put away the telephoto lens and become part of the moment."

She cautions against bland, nondescript images. "I see so many portfolios that contain superficial travel images that all feel the same. You have to work on a story for years. Work on something you know well." Ami also believes one needn't go far to find something worthwhile to photograph. "The biggest misconception about getting work published by National Geographic is that people feel they need to cover a foreign country for it to be interesting. That’s not how it works. Travel photography is really about intimacy and getting to know people and places. Most amateurs will photograph images of the exotic, but the most compelling images are those that surprise or teach us something about an ordinary, normal life." 

However, if you do choose to go abroad, be fully committed to the story. "It’s very difficult to go deep into a story when you only parachute in and out. It may look glamorous and fun traveling the world and taking pictures, but it takes serious commitment and sheer hard work." Ami emphasizes that her work isn't "simply about jetting off to exotic places. The magic really begins when I stay in one place, often years, to get beyond the surface and talk about the things that connect us all."

It’s what connects us all that has made Ami recently launch a fundraiser in the wake of a tragedy she witnessed first-hand in Kenya.

Keeper Joseph Wachira with Sudan, the last male northern white rhino in the world 
Credit: Ami Vitale

Ami was at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in northern Kenya, where she took this gut-wrenching photo of keeper Joseph Wachira comforting Sudan, the last male northern white rhino in the world, shortly before he passed away. Sudan's death "signified the end of an ancient species. It was a heartbreaking moment. He was surrounded by love, together with the people who committed their lives to protecting him. I hope that no one ever has to experience the last of anything ever again."

Ami is spearheading a fundraiser with Omaze in support of Ol Pejeta Conservancy. "For a donation of just $10, you will be entered to win a trip to accompany me on a 5-day safari to Ol Pejeta, where you will meet the last two remaining white rhinos on the planet and take in all the incredible wildlife the conservancy has to offer." 

It's Ami's fervent wish and goal that "Sudan can be our final wake up call. In a world of 7 billion, we need to start recognizing that we are not separate from nature. When we see ourselves as part of the landscape and part of nature, then saving nature is really about saving ourselves."

When asked what career goals are left that she wants to pursue, Ami's response embodies this love, concern and passion for the security and wellbeing of nature and all its inhabitants: "My goals are more personal. Basically trying to be a better human for this planet."

To learn more about Ami and her work, including her workshops and classes, visit her website: https://www.amivitale.com

To make a donation and enter to win a trip to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, visit www.omaze.com/rhinos

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