Ami Vitale: Connecting the World Through Photography
The award-winning photojournalist shares her powerful images and inspiring words.
Livingly's Inspiring Artist series asks talented women of all creative mediums to share their work and how they live life beautifully.
The photojournalist has traveled to 85 countries, documenting both extreme conflict and resilient beauty. Whether she's capturing a joyous moment or one of great sorrow, her pictures have the power to instantly make you feel. It's no wonder her award winning photographs are exhibited around the world and featured in publications like National Geographic, Time and Smithsonian.
After seeing her images, I was eager to ask Vitale about her work, her experiences and the causes closest to her heart. Her answers will give you chills—and a whole new way to look at the world.
What is your first memory of using a camera or taking pictures?
I was a shy, awkward child. My parents thought that putting me in front of a camera would apparently give me more courage. Well, it didn’t quite work out the way they planned because I never got used to being in front of the camera. But I realized that being behind the camera is where I got my courage. I was now putting attention on others and it was empowering. What I never imagined was that by empowering myself, I was also empowering the people I was photographing. It became very meaningful and that’s how I got started.
What drew you to photography as a career?
In the beginning, photography was my passport to meeting people, learning, and experiencing new cultures. Now it is more than just a passport. It’s 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. Photography has this instant ability to connect people without language. You can look at an image and instantly feel something. I’ve been on this mission to tell stories that connect people rather than simply emphasize our differences.
Do you have a favorite photograph or collection of photographs you've
I have a genuine interest and passion for each story so they are all memorable. Most of the projects I work on take years so there is a tremendous amount of commitment. If I have to name a couple projects that have impacted me, they are my work in Kashmir and Kenya.
What makes them special to you?
I was deeply affected by the Himalayan region of Kashmir. I wandered into the poetry of Kashmir in November of 2001 and could not let go. This place filled me with affection. It took time to understand the motivations of a people and the beauty of their land and culture. It also left scars after spending more than four years, documenting the brutality of humanity and being personally affected by the senseless deaths of close friends and innocent strangers. This was one of the most difficult times in my life but it also shaped me into the person I am today. Kashmir taught me one of my most important lessons about the enduring power of the human spirit. (See the powerful video here.)
Is there a specific photo or story you covered that received the strongest reaction from others?
Most recently, an image from Kenya received an award from World Press Photo that has gotten strong reactions.
What makes a photograph powerful to you?
An image needs to be more than just beautiful to be powerful. It must also tell a story and illustrate a rich understanding of a place and its people.
How do you approach your work so fearlessly?
It sounds romantic to travel the world but the reality is that you must be emotionally self reliant. I look back on experiences I had and now wonder how I got through some of them. They were sometimes unimaginable, often lonely and occasionally utterly terrifying. On the other hand, the people and experiences changed my life, showed me all the possibilities that exist and inspired me to continue. My take away from all these experiences is that we can not afford to view the world through an optic of fear and hate. As journalists, we must work harder not to tell stories through our own paradigm of values. Unless we have empathy for those who have a different viewpoint than our own, then we justify the existing divisions in our world.
What keeps you hopeful?
There is a beautiful, universal truth everywhere and, if you peek under the veil, you’ll find a wondrous commonality between us. I don't use the camera just as an extension of my eye but also as an extension of my heart.
Is there a particular place or subject you haven't had the opportunity
to photograph and would really like to?
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. My dream project is to work in my backyard in Montana. I've started but look forward to spending more time here.
What was the most surprising thing that happened to you when working?
I’ve had so many experiences. Some inspiring and others utterly terrifying. My worst close call was in a village in Palestine, in Gaza. It was after a Palestinian had been shot and killed, after his funeral. The sun was setting and I was the only journalist still there. My instincts were telling me it was time to go, but I just wanted to get one or two more frames. And then this man started screaming, and within seconds I was surrounded by a crowd of young, very angry men. There had been a lot of killings in that area, people were enraged and I knew there was no reasoning with a mob. They wanted blood. They wanted vengeance. I had spent time earlier with the family
of the Palestinian who had been killed, including several women from his family. These women, who had been standing on the periphery of the crowd, stepped forward to escort me to safety. But if they hadn’t been there, if I hadn’t spent the day with them, I don’t know what would have happened.
And the most inspiring?
My journey has allowed me to witness extraordinary acts of kindness, even in the darkest places.
Is there a particular cause that is closest to your heart?
I’m working with several conservation organizations in Kenya including the Nature Conservancy, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, the Northern Rangelands Trust and Conservation International. Whether it's ranchers in Montana, rhinos and elephants in Africa or pandas in China, I tend to focus on connections; between people, between communities and between people and nature. I use photography to focus on the things that we share, the commonalities rather then the things that divide.
I work with Ripple Effect Images, a collective of scientists, writers, photographers and filmmakers with a mission of creating powerful stories illustrating the very specific issues women in developing countries face. I am also a member of the Executive Advisory Committee of the Alexia Foundation's Photojournalism Advisory Board. I would not be who I am without the guidance and support from so many people. They have given selflessly and given me the profound desire to pay it forward.
What's next for you?
Im working on two stories for National Geographic at the moment. One on pandas in China and another on Sri
Lanka after a brutal, 26-year conflict. When I get home, I will begin a speaking tour in several US cities for National Geographic called, "My search for Truth: Rhinos, Rickshaws and Revolution." Finally, I am working on a personal project in Kenya about how indigenous Kenyans are coming together to fight poaching.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Don’t look at people as different or exotic.
Our motto at Livingly is "live life beautifully" — what does living beautifully mean to you?
Being authentic, connecting with the people and nature and remembering that we have more in common with each other than you might think.