An intimate chat with National Geographic photojournalist Ami Vitale
Photojournalist Ami Vitale, who appears at The Straz March 28 for the final talk in our National Geographic LIVE! season, had a revelation standing in the middle of the Second Intifada. She’ll tell you all about it—and how it led to her quiet revolution in storytelling. Vitale’s images challenge people to start pondering the whole picture outside of the snapshots from the terror-scape of how we talk about world events. Vitale means to make us see what we share as humans connected to an entire planet, a rather radical move in the age of bubble bias and other troubling trends in the information age.
In her talk here, Ami will take the audience on a breathtaking, heartwarming and ultimately thought-provoking journey traversing her years as a war correspondent, her immersion studies in Guinea Bissau and Kashmir and eventually to her coolest-job-ever assignment of documenting pandas (and so many baby pandas) in China’s rescue and re-wilding program. You will see Ami in a panda suit and learn many interesting things through the stories she tells in her photographs.
Last week, we caught up with Ami by phone from her Montana home, where she was recovering from jetlag after a two-day delay in returning from her latest assignment in Kenya. We learned more about her, and share our conversation with you in this exclusive interview.
CITA: You graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill around 1993 with a degree in International Studies. Was that because you already had a global plan for yourself and photography was a part of that?
Ami Vitale: Photography was not something I dreamed of. I just didn’t think that kind of life was possible for someone like me. But once I started to latch onto the idea of photography, I saw it as my passport to the world.
CITA: But you had an internship with the Smithsonian print room at 16 years old, which is really cool. You didn’t know you were going to be a photographer then?
AV: Yeah, my job was to print pictures from the Smithsonian archives. You know how you can order prints from them, so I was down in the archives making prints for all the people who ordered them. I was among all of these historical images, and I think it was at that time that I realized the power of photography. When I was 16, I understood the power of photography, but I didn’t understand it could be a career path for someone like me.
CITA: We love that twice you’ve said that the life you have now wasn’t for “someone like me.” What does that mean? What were you like?
AV: I was introverted, gawky. I was intimidated by a lot of things. I was just afraid. I wasn’t the kind of person who had big dreams for myself, or any dreams at all. So, I didn’t have that dream [of being a travel photographer] in my mind. I just didn’t have that kind of confidence. I see these young girls today, they’re so confident, they want to go out and conquer the world . . . [laughs] I wasn’t like that.
CITA: But something changed. Do you remember a specific point when you got a camera or took a particular photo and suddenly you became Ami Vitale?
AV: You know, the second I had a camera in my hand—and I still get emotional when I think about it—a camera empowered me. It gave me a reason to be somewhere, to be with people, to have a purpose and a story to tell. I didn’t understand, really, how important this medium is in that way, that a shy, introverted person could become an empowered person who could say important things. But, as time went on, the more important lesson was that these images could be empowering to people I was photographing. Their stories are very valuable.
CITA: What strikes us about you when reading other interviews or watching your TED or Nat Geo talks is that you don’t have a stage persona. You seem to come out on the stage as yourself, still as someone who is also amazed that you get to work you do and share stories about what you discover and photograph. You’re so relatable as a regular kind of person.
AV [laughs]: There’s still the little girl in me who can’t believe all of this life is possible. [laughs] Thinking, ‘I’m not worthy’ and being in amazement about it. But, the mission took over. It’s not about me. I’m driven by something else bigger than me. That’s what photography did for me—it’s a vehicle to take me places among people to show how connected we are, that we have so much in common, that there’s more to the story than what we typically see.
CITA: Your point of view about our similarities, about our shared values and shared planet is so important right now. You seem to have a necessary voice pointing out that humanity is part of a bigger picture of a common place.
AV: I definitely think we all play some small role in a bigger story of being connected. Every single person’s voice is valuable and important. Part of what happened to me was learning to believe in the importance of my own voice. Everyone has to listen to their own voice, trust it, and use it—now more than ever.
CITA: Something else striking, especially scrolling through your Instagram account, is the ongoing archetypes of girlhood you present, a version of girlhood that is for women who are smart, love animals, expected adventure in life, and held a sort of ride-or-die vision of friendship and family. The pictures of the horses’ manes from the Montana photos drove home this notion, for us at least, that here was a photographer who captured what adult life looks like for those girlhood archetypes. Do you think about that when you’re photographing or is that just something we read into your images as the viewer?
AV: I had not and haven’t ever thought about the images in that way, that’s so interesting. I’ll have to do some soul searching on that question about girlhood archetypes. But, I can tell you what I am aware of. I am aware of my feminine point of view. Most of my career, I was trying to do what my male colleagues were doing, but I got old enough to understand that what I have, my feminine point of view, is especially important. People will say to me, “you’re too Pollyanna for the world,” but I say no. I’m not. I just see it differently, and I have an important point of view. I’m latching on to my inner voice that says ‘you can be strong and have an optimistic view of the world.’
CITA: Most of us are trained to believe that news has to be bad or drastic or war-torn to be taken seriously, this more masculine worldview of war, fear and dominance themes as the “real” story, all else is fluff or not serious. We get stuck in narrative ruts and don’t question what more is there to the story, or is this an accurate depiction. By default, that view is often the unquestioned version of events, so we see the same types of images “from the field.” We’re glad you don’t take that route.
AV: Even today, I have to fight to get my stories, which are just as valid and necessary, published. I’m someone who looks for solutions, not just documenting the problems. But, solutions are hard to get published. Why? Why aren’t we telling the whole story instead of half truths? I see in wholes. We are so used to these kinds of horror-narratives that we’re brainwashed to think the same way. It’s wonderful to have a platform [like National Geographic LIVE!] to be able to tell another story, to find a way forward. We have to keep moving forward.
CITA: It’s hard to have the courage to say hey, there’s a different way to look at what’s going on. What is it that compels you to tales of the human heart?
AV: Well . . . what’s the point of living otherwise? When I come home from a trip, I don’t even want to turn on the news, there’s so much fear everywhere. I mean, there is fear every place I look. Continuing to spread fear doesn’t make a better world. When I’m out there, in the world, I don’t see things the way they appear in television coverage of the same event. I’m in the war zones. I’m there. And I see a much wider view of what humanity looks like, of life unfolding. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re creating the things we’re afraid of. I see so much beauty in humanity everywhere, and why are we not shining a light on that? I want those stories told. About how connected we are. Look anywhere and you’ll see it. But, right now, we’re being hijacked by extreme ideas.
CITA: You do seem to be a much needed voice.
AV: Well, the truth is, ultimately I want to give people the ability to dream, to find a path, to make a difference. I want people to know that you don’t have to travel the world, you can do that in your own backyard. I didn’t have the ability to dream when I was younger, so I want to give that to others.
CITA: Part of helping others dream is teaching and workshops. You have an upcoming photography workshop to Prague with high school students through a program with Nat Geo. What’s that all about?
AV: Teaching is a way to pass the torch, so I do quite a bit of speaking and teaching. This workshop is a little bit of what it’s like to be a travel correspondent, how do you tell stories, how do you listen to people. It’s teaching them that the life isn’t about snapping pretty pictures, it’s more than that. It should be about 18-20 students, so very intimate because I do like to get to know everyone individually and help them in their work.
CITA: We can’t wait to see you in a few weeks.
AV: Thanks so much. I’m really looking forward to it.
Have favorite Ami photos? Let us know in the comments below.