National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale imbeds herself in distant places to find ways we’re all connected — both to each other and the natural world
By Bliss Bowen
“Globetrotting” is no exaggeration when applied to Ami Vitale, an award-winning National Geographic photographer who will be speaking at the Broad Stage tonight and Friday. She’s traveled to more than 90 countries, including some of the world’s most imperiled wildlife habitats and dangerous conflict zones, where early-career experience as an editor honed her understanding of how reports get shaped and presented. Her striking, insightful images tell important stories: Kenyan villagers protecting endangered rhinos from poachers; sari-draped women standing in an ancient Jaipur water well afflicted by drought; a Kashmiri soldier clutching his rifle before a street shop’s toy display; Montana cowboys jamming on guitars at dusk; panda-suited Chinese scientists feeding baby pandas. Her work has exposed her to humanity’s depravity — as well as its dignity and generosity.
Conversations with ancient manuscript guardians in Mali enlightened Vitale about relative perceptions of safety; learning to make videos taught her to embrace what scares you: “I think that’s the best way — keep trying things that we don’t know anything about.” She takes roads less traveled, literally and figuratively, to fulfill her personal mandate to “see the whole story.” Journalists, she says, need to “shift the narrative” and dig deeper into not only problems but solutions too.
Judging by the Montana resident’s travel itinerary, she’s rarely home. Vitale spoke with The Argonaut an hour after speaking in Toronto — three days after returning from another talk in Australia. Despite fatigue, she was animated by an impressively positive worldview.
The Argonaut: In your “Half the Truth” TED Talk last year, you described yourself as a really shy child. How did you overcome that to cover conflict zones in Afghanistan, Gaza, Kashmir, Kosovo and Sierra Leone?
Ami Vitale: I think I was driven by curiosity. Also, I’m starting to realize that I’m not afraid of failing. But I didn’t really start covering war purposely. I had the dream of being a foreign correspondent, and then this war just started unfolding in my backyard, and it captured my heart. Something inside me knew that I had to go tell these stories — I was hearing stories about children walking over the mountains in their slippers and just the clothes they had to flee. I went overnight from being this relatively amateur portrait photographer to covering war, without really meaning to. Once I got into it, though, I kind of knew what I was doing. It was because I was connecting to people. I was listening to their stories.
Your innate understanding of story-telling guided you?
Yeah, and an innate, I guess, love for people? That sounds so cliché, but I think the world is a beautiful place. I really do. And I’m not afraid of people who are different from me. That’s what drove me. I started realizing, ‘Why are we so afraid of one another? Because we look different?’
I should flash back to my first real experiences living in Guinea Bissau in my early twenties, in a really remote village where most people don’t have electricity, running water, access to health care, nothing. Yet I left with this deeper understanding, this universal truth that we are all connected. And there’s so much more that connects us than divides us, and you don’t really understand that if you just sit there watching the television. The news only reflects the very worst in humanity — the most sensational, violent actions. Which isn’t a lie, but it’s also not the truth, either, because it’s one tiny piece of a much larger story. …
You have to remember to see the whole story. We’re not really given that if we just try to watch the world through the lens of somebody else. It’s funny, because even now, the world looks like this horrible place, and guess what? I go to the most horrible places on the planet — what people consider horrible — and they’re not! People are amazing! [Laughs.] They share everything they have. It’s really interesting: Even when I go places we consider dangerous, I’ll ask people about their lives, and they have the same feeling that the rest of the world is dangerous. … I want to get out there and tell those stories and remind us of how much magic there is, and to set a different narrative. Which is especially tense right now.
Yes, it’s interesting to hear you say all this during the present political moment.
Exactly. If we only create these narratives, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it almost becomes what we’re afraid of, when that’s all we talk about. So I want to balance out the storyline.
We need messages of truth and hope that are everywhere.
I’m not sure it’s accurate to say you also cover wildlife, but there’s a lot of wildlife in your photography.
Yeah. That was an interesting transition for me. After covering conflict for so long, I was so exhausted and depressed and I told myself, ‘I’m taking six months off.’ Just then, the Nature Conservancy called and asked, ‘What are you doing for the next six months?’
I [worked on] a book project where they sent me to some of the most beautiful places on the planet. It got me thinking about the stories I was telling, and I realized everything — all these conflicts — are always about the natural world; they’re always about resources and where things are coming from. It’s always about the environment. You can’t talk about people without talking about the environment, and vice versa. We are the same story. I also started realizing that this is the biggest story out there.
My theme now is co-existence: How do we share this planet — not just with each other, but with wildlife? We need the animals. We need to pay attention to what we’re doing to this planet. I think there are incredible stories that make all of us feel connected.
You lived in Guinea Bissau for six months and in Kashmir for four years. What is the truest gratification of immersing yourself in challenging environments? Bearing witness?
I actually love it because it doesn’t feel difficult. It feels closer to things. I thrive in those situations, and I feel totally out of place when I’m in a very creature-comfort world. I sleep better, I’m not watching the news, I’m so happy and feel connected to something else. [Laughs.] It sounds so corny, but I’m in love with a lot of this planet, and I know love alone isn’t enough to save it. So I’m trying to share some of what I get to witness. It’s so beautiful. There’s nothing to be afraid of. If you really take the time to get to know people — get to know a place, get to know wildlife — there’s nothing more beautiful.
Your work shows that beauty. The photos from Kenya are sober yet poetic — especially one of two hands framing an elephant eye, and another of warriors placing hands on an orphaned rhino’s head.
The Samburu are touching a rhino for the first time in their lives, because they’ve been locally extinct for almost 30 years and it was the first time they ever saw one. They were as mythical to them as Bigfoot. It was the most amazing sight to witness.
Do you feel compelled to maintain a reporter’s professional objectivity, or do you feel more like an advocate on a mission?
Objectivity is an illusion. There is no such thing. We’re all incredibly subjective. But I think the key is to have a multitude of viewpoints as you’re telling stories. We need more voices.
“Rhinos, Rickshaws & Revolutions: My Search for Truth”: National Geographic Live presents Ami Vitale at the Broad Stage (1310 11th St., Santa Monica) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, May 18 and 19. Tickets are $50 to $85. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com.