Montana-based photographer Ami Vitale can see rays of light in even the darkest of circumstances. Her humanistic approach to photojournalism and deep understanding of the complex geopolitical world shine through in her images that grace the pages of magazines including National Geographic, Newsweek, GEO, TIME and Smithsonian.
Muslim children play outside of a school in a refugee camp that housed more than 120,000 people, set in the state of Gujarat in Ahmedabad, India. DPP: Photojournalists tend to flock en masse to conflict zones and emerge with powerful, yet similar dark imagery. Your images seem to buck the trend and give the viewers a sense of hope from even the deepest sea of madness.
Ami Vitale: Even in the worst places I’ve been to, the people are just like you and me. They’re not on the extremes of society. They want safety and security for their children and for them to have a good education. As journalists, we tend to parachute in, and we have to come back with a great story. I’m not denying that horrible things are happening and that they need coverage, I’m just saying we need a wider lens to help us relate to people.
DPP: And you’re saying this from the perspective of having traveled to more than 85 countries, many where the rule of the gun supersedes the rule of law.
Vitale: We need to show the everyday things that help people relate to each other. When I turn on the TV today, the world looks terrifying. The truth is, it’s not as terrifying as it looks. I know this sounds crazy given recent news. Those very extreme elements are there. But it’s getting worse because we’re not emphasizing the majority that’s in the middle. We need stories that help us understand one another, help us share the commonality. I just want equal coverage. In virtually every conflict zone I’ve been in, I feel like we’re being hijacked by the extreme elements. That’s the tragedy for me. That’s why I have as a mission to talk about these quieter stories. I know they’re not as dramatic. DPP: Many journalists, perhaps propelled by tight deadlines and extreme competition, parachute, as you say, into areas of conflict and barely scratch the surface of the reality of the place for the average person. Has photojournalism always had this approach, or have things changed over the years?
Vitale: Strangely enough, with the democratization of media and more locals telling their own stories, things could actually be getting better. The problem is, it has to start in the newsrooms of the Western media. But it’s tricky. You have to make sure that the news is coming from a credible source. Look at the Arab Spring. That’s a perfect example of local voices telling their own stories through social media. Historically, the way we see the world has been very colonial.
Establishing authenticity is one of the things we’re going to have to fork through. People use the media for their own propaganda. You see locals using images; for example, Ron Haviv had an image that he shot in the Balkan conflict, and it’s being reused to illustrate the situation in the Ukraine. For the fantastic campaign Bring Back Our Girls, about the girls that were kidnapped in Nigeria, it turns out they used two images of mine, from girls 2,000 miles away in Guinea-Bissau. It’s misrepresentative.
DPP: Can one be truly objective covering stories in harsh, dangerous places?
Vitale: I don’t think so. We all come in with our own ideas and values. There’s no one absolute truth. That’s why there’s conflict. I think that the way we get to "truth" is through a variety of perspectives. It has got to be a mosaic to get to a deeper understanding of a place. I keep saying a wider lens. We sometimes come in with narrow perspectives. It takes time and a deep curiosity to get beyond the surface.
Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, we leave things out. When I first started working for a newspaper—I won’t mention the name—I remember them asking me to go into a classroom and to photograph a specific ethnicity of child. The truth was, there were only three out of the whole room. It was shaping reality for the story. DPP: And, often, in crowd situations, someone will be conscious of the camera and will hold a sign up in a heroic way, asking nonverbally to be photographed, but clearly media-savvy.
Vitale: My first real experience with that was when I went to cover the Second Intifada. I was in Gaza, and kids were throwing rocks for all the camera people. I looked at my colleagues and said, "You know they’re throwing these rocks because we’re here." Things began escalating quickly. All of a sudden, the Israelis started shooting rubber bullets back and then kids started getting sent to the hospital. I had to ask myself the question, "Were we creating something?" A few days later, I was asked to cover the most violent moments. That’s what my editors said the audience wanted. I remember walking around the corner and finding this beautiful Palestinian wedding. I thought to myself that these are the actual images that help people relate and help us feel that these people are just like you and me. They weren’t the pictures of guys in masks with guns. I had those images of scary-looking people and violence. I just had to ask myself, "Was I, at best, just telling half the story and, at worst, just telling a lie defining people in just one way?" I was working for a number of news agencies back then.
Within every story, no matter how dark, there are actually all these incredible things happening. For example, all we hear coming out of China is depressing environmental news. All of that’s real. A colleague of mine found this wonderful story that I covered; China is putting captive-born pandas back into the wild. If we want to create a better world, we’ve got to tell these stories. I want to find the stories tha
t encourage and inspire people.
DPP: What initially attracted you to photography, and who were some of your early inspirations?
Vitale: I started with the camera because it was a tool for me to get out and interact with people because I was terribly shy. I found that once I had a camera in my hands, all of a sudden people were, like, "Come on in." Then I started realizing that I was being invited into all these extraordinary situations, and I could tell all these beautiful stories. Then it became a responsibility to do justice to the things I was seeing. Susan Meiselas and Larry Towell were very inspiring to me. Susan curated the Open Society Foundations’ "Moving Walls 6" exhibition, which included my series "Guinea-Bissau: In the Cool Shade of a Mud Hut." I was inspired by not only her work, but her passion to give back. Same with Larry. The first person that I should mention, though, is Rich Beckman, my first professor in photography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thirty years later, he’s still my greatest mentor, helping me with proposals, ideas; he’s so committed. He encourages his students to apply for grants, and to see the world as a bigger place and to tell bigger stories. Now the halls of magazines such as National Geographic, Time and The New York Times are filled with his former students.
DPP: Do you come up with your own ideas for these types of magazines, or are you assigned most projects?
Vitale: It’s a mix of both. Often, someone will send me on an assignment, which is never long enough, and I’ll say to myself, "There’s so much here, I have to come back."
For example, there’s one story I’m working on right now. There are only four northern rhinos that are able to breed on the planet. They’ve been killed to extinction in the wild. The poaching in Africa is getting worse and worse. The rhino horn is worth more than gold. I found them in a zoo in the Czech Republic. I heard through confidential sources that they were flying them to Kenya on a DHL flight. There are two different types of white rhinos, the northern white and the southern white. They hope to crossbreed them so they can maintain some of the genetics. I followed the four northern rhinos. I was then sent last year by The Nature Conservancy to look at a place called the Northern Rangelands Trust. It’s basically indigenous communities getting together. It sort of answered the question for me, "How do the Africans feel about this? How are their lives impacted?" You only see the poaching problem portrayed in a very narrow way by outsiders. The best hope we have for the future is if the wildlife is valuable to the Africans, then they become the protectors. It can’t be solutions coming from the outside. I did a crowdsourcing campaign. It’s one of these lifelong stories I’m going to be working on. Not just defining the problem, but talking about the solutions. I don’t hear enough of the positive stories, the way forward. There are solutions. If we give those stories the play that they need, it can become a model for other places and people.
DPP: And some of those stories you’re telling with the moving image. How did that come about, and what equipment are you working with?
Vitale: Video is such a powerful medium. In 2009, I went back to school for a year and a half, with Rich again, who had moved to Florida to teach at the University of Miami at the Knight Center for International Media. I moved to Miami and got a master’s focusing on journalism and filmmaking.
In terms of video equipment, in addition to my Nikon D4S, the main thing is a tripod, which I don’t really enjoy carrying around as a still photographer. I use the Redrock Micro and a viewfinder when I’m not on the tripod to avoid too much shakiness when I move around. I use a Zoom recorder with mics or lavaliers and a RØDE mic on-camera.
|Amy Vitale’s Gear|
|Nikon D4S DSLR
AF-S Nikkor 400mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR
AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G ED VR
AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II
AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED
AF-S Nikkor 24mm ƒ/2.8D
Nikon SB-910 Speedlights
Goal Zero solar panels
F-stop photo backpack
DPP: What are the biggest adjustments you have to make when transitioning to a video shoot?
Vitale: In the beginning, the main thing for me was sense of timing. I’d cut takes too quickly. Since I was used to working in fractions of a second, a 10-second take seemed like an eternity. Also, when you’re jumping from place to place, you have to greet the viewer there. You also have to think in terms of storytelling and continuity. Another aspect is that you have to collaborate with others to have a successful film. That has been great for me because I’m used to being this lone wolf. Working with other people opens you up to all these other ideas and makes everything richer.
DPP: What equipment do you work with for your still photography?
Vitale: I carry a Nikon D4S and usually just one lens, a 24-70mm or a fixed 24mm. If I’m shooting protests or something like that, I’ll carry a second body with a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8. If I’m shooting wildlife, I’ll bring the 80-400mm. I have that huge 400mm lens and an extender, but I find that unless I’m just in a safari situation driving around, it’s very hard to move freely.
DPP: One doesn’t think of you as a wildlife photographer.
Vitale: But everything is connected. In the beginning of my career, I covered conflict after conflict. I started realizing they were connected to the natural world and resources. There are so many signs before conflicts get bloody. We, as journalists, have to do a better job talking about the root causes. We have the chance to do so much. There are solutions to our most pressing problems.