National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale reveals how to make a difference through photography
National Geographic photographer and conservation activist Ami Vitale needs little introduction. Her work champions the wildlife and people that find themselves in front of her lens, and she shares their stories with empathy and dignity.
DIYP was lucky enough to talk to Ami and find out about what inspires her to keep seeking out these often soul-searching stories, and to hear about her latest project, Vital Impacts involving more than 100 eminent wildlife and nature photographers. And, of course, naturally, we had to find out what was in her camera bag!
Ami is possibly best known for her work documenting the Giant Panda, and the subsequent book ‘Panda Love’. That project was the culmination of more than 3 years of work, with Vitale even having to don a urine-scented panda suit in order to be accepted by the creatures and get close to them.
It is this tenacity, long-form approach, and the development of relationships with local communities which holds the key to Vitale’s work. “It’s all about your relationships,” says Vitale. “I stick with stories for a very long time. It doesn’t mean I’m there every single day, but I’m in close contact with the people in the communities, and I try to keep in touch and make regular visits so that I’m not a stranger in any of these places.”
In fact, Vitale says that possibly the hardest part of the panda project was building these relationships in the first place. “The hard part was getting the trust and the access to be able to tell that story over time,” explains Ami, “the Chinese government treats those panda bears with kid gloves; each one is a million-dollar bear,” she adds.
Connecting the Dots
Gaining access is one part of the puzzle, but the other part is understanding the animals and communities that she is photographing. Vitale actually began her photography journey as a war photographer, witnessing many conflicts. But what really struck her during that time was the connection with the planet.
“I began to realize that this connection that I was missing in my work which is all of these conflicts, most human suffering can always be connected to the breakdown of the natural world. Everything is about our resources,” she says. This realization led Vitale to focus on both the plight of the wildlife and the local people actively working to protect it.
“I realized that it has been a privilege for me to go and tell some of these stories,” she says, “but I also think that we need to empower these communities to tell their own stories. That was kind of the beginning of Vital Impacts.”
Vital Impacts is a woman-led grassroots foundation started by Vitale, they have collaborated with conservationist Jane Goodall since their founding. The project gathers together the world’s top environmental photographers. The print sales from these photographs goes directly back to the communities protecting the wildlife, and the foundation also offers grants and mentorships to photographers.
“It’s a tough business, so I want to create a marketplace where people can support photographers, be inspired, and at the same time create grants and mentoring opportunities for the communities working to protect Wildlife for them to become the storytellers as well,” Vitale explains.
Art is a really powerful on-ramp for activism
– Ami Vitale
Ami evidently is passionate about her work and that of fellow environmental photographers. The collection includes stunning work by Chris Burkhard, Brian Skerry, Steve McCurry, Nick Brandt, and Beth Moon. The foundation aims to raise over $1 million to support those protecting endangered habitats, and at the same time, be completely carbon neutral.
But it’s not just about pretty pictures. Sure, this work is absolutely breathtaking and belongs on gallery walls, but for Ami, there is much more to it than that. “How do you make your image more than just beautiful?” Ami asks. The answer is that “it needs to tell a story.” She feels that all of us have a unique voice and have something to offer, and you don’t even have to travel across the world to find these stories.
For aspiring environmental photographers or photojournalists, Ami has some great advice. “Go deep,” she says, “you need to tell the story well over time, and that means picking something in your backyard. There are environmental stories everywhere on the planet,” Vitale advises. She also believes in getting out of your comfort zone, taking your time getting to know the subject, and understanding the complexities of it over a long period of time, such as a year minimum. So often, she says, photographers flit from project to project and never get that real depth that is needed.
I think we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zones a little bit more to get meaningful images. Because inspiration often comes from a place of discomfort. When you push yourself out of your comfort zone and step into the shoes of others, it creates empathy. And empathy is the wellspring of creativity.
– Ami Vitale
Ami has been a Nikon ambassador for years and typically carries two Z9 bodies. Her workhorse lens is the 24-70mm f/2.8. However, she also loves to use the 85mm and 70-200mm when necessary. She is finding herself doing more and more filmmaking, so the ability to switch between stills and video quickly is imperative. It all boils down to, ultimately, what are the best tools to tell the story.
Making a Difference
Stories such as documenting the last handful of Northern white rhinos obviously leave a toll. There are currently just two females left in the world. This is extinction happening before our very eyes.
Ami admits that at times she feels despair at the state of the world. But ultimately, we all have a choice. “We all have a role,” she says, “we all have to try to find little everyday things we can do to make a difference,” Ami continues. “I want the next generations to be able to experience this beautiful world that I have experienced with all the diversity of species. And it’s not too late. There are so many beautiful things happening all over the planet and stories that will give you hope.”
Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe