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It's A Living: Ami Vitale's Lost Horizons

[by Hal Stucker]


PHOTO © AMI VITALE
ROOM WITH A VIEW: Inside an ancient castle in India’s Rajasthan Thar desert, a woman gazes out the window of a space constructed as the meditation room for the ancestral family of Devi Garh.


If you ask her what she does for a living, Ami Vitale won’t necessarily tell you she’s a photographer. Neither will she say photojournalist. “I consider myself a storyteller,” she says in her trademark upbeat voice. “A visual storyteller.”

And neither does she limit herself to still images. Over the past several years, film and audio have become equally important parts of her repertoire. “I find it incredibly powerful to use audio and moving images,” she says. “There’s really no point in limiting yourself; you can use stills, audio and moving images together. It’s all open-ended as to how you want to tell a story. And the Internet also provides a way to bring that story to a huge audience, a bigger audience than we’ve ever been able to reach before.”

She admits, though, that a photographic career, always a precarious proposition, has only become that much more so now. “For someone who may have worked as a traditional press photographer, who had a steady job and a dependable salary, this has to be a very frightening time,” she says. “But we’re going to have to start thinking of things in very nontraditional ways, in terms of both what we’re doing and how we’re funding it. And on one level, it’s very tough and very depressing. But every medium goes through change. If you have a story you want to tell badly enough, you can find a way to do it.”

Embracing New Challenges
Her recent efforts to combine sound and moving and still images have become so important to her work that, after traveling the globe with her camera since the late 1990s, Vitale stopped to spend 18 months earning a master’s degree in multimedia at the University of Miami’s School of Communication in Florida, receiving her degree in December 2010 while working as a senior producer for the Knight Center for International Media. Some of her recent multimedia and video pieces include a short, impressionistic film about India, a documentary on maternal health in Sierra Leone, a film on efforts to save the last four breeding Northern white rhinos as they were moved from a zoo in the Czech Republic to Africa, another exploring the impact of climate change on people in developing nations, and work for Oxfam, the human rights and relief organization.

Vitale got her first taste of photography and began her romance with visual storytelling when she was in high school, working as a volunteer at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of American History in Washington D.C. “They have a huge photo department in the basement,” she explains, “and I worked there making prints. It turned out to be a fantastic way of looking at the past and trying to understand it through all these images. That was one of the things that inspired me to start taking pictures on my own, along with a photography class I was taking at school. Although, at the time I didn’t even dream you could actually do it as a career.”

She found photography liberating, however. “I was very shy, and it made me find a way to work up the courage to approach people and ask if I could take their picture. I’ve always been curious about people, and if I saw someone I thought was interesting for whatever reason, I would go up to them and start talking to them, and finally take pictures of them.”

Attitude Counts
Though Vitale continued to study photography when she entered college at the University of North Carolina (UNC), she had originally planned to become an engineer. She credits Rich Beckman, one of her UNC photo teachers, as setting her on the path to her current career. “He really helped me shape my life,” says Vitale. “Rich encouraged me to do things like apply for grants and enter contests back when I really didn’t know anything at all about the photographic world. And I started doing the things he’d suggested and was surprised when I started to see some early success.”

One of the things Vitale applied for and won was an internship with USA Today, which led to a job as a photo editor with the Associated Press. “I worked for them in New York and Washington for about five years but finally realized I needed to go out and try to be a photographer, thinking that if I failed miserably that was fine, because at least I’d tried.”

She’d previously taught English in the Czech Republic one summer and decided to move back to Prague in 1997. She had begun working in Yugoslavia’s Kosovo region and knew that a conflict was in the making, before NATO or the United States ever became involved. “I visited and saw Serb soldiers and tanks on the streets and I thought, this place is about to explode. So I started contacting editors, even though no one even seemed to know where Kosovo was at that point. But when the conflict started and NATO got involved, I got a whole bunch of phone calls. And I ended up working there about nine months.”

Vitale says she hadn’t started out to be a conflict photographer, “but it was happening right there, right in my backyard.” She was also fascinated by the history of the conflict and in trying to understand it from the point of view of both the Kosovars and the Serbs. This curiosity about other cultures and their histories, coupled with a desire to form a deeper understanding of the people she photographs, has been a hallmark of Vitale’s work.

Long-term Commitments

Her mantra is, “This is not about me, this is not about making beautiful images, it’s about telling the story,” she says. “Of course I want the images to be beautiful, but it’s extremely important for me to be sensitive to the people I’m photographing and to be true to my understanding of what the story is all about.”

For example, she traveled to the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau around 2001, funded by a grant from the Alexia Foundation for World Peace. Her sister Abigail, “the really adventurous one,” was living there, and Vitale had visited her in the past. The country had seen several years of civil war since then, and Vitale went back to document life in the village where her sister lived, to see how people had changed and adapted after the conflict.

“I thought I would be there for four weeks maximum,” she says. “I ended up staying for six months. And I realized very quickly that I absolutely had to stay—the story was not about life in West Africa post-conflict; it turned out to simply be about what day-to-day life in an African village looks like. On the surface it seems very simple, although the dynamics of life in the village are very complex. But it’s the way most of the world still lives, through farming small plots of land, with no running water and no electricity.”

Prompted by her sister, Vitale brought rice and salt along with her as gifts. “The villagers lived primarily on rice,” she says. “I was there at the end of the dry season, and they were only eating rice once a day. The children would eat last, all of them sharing one big bowl of rice. I remember shooting a picture showing the bowl with their hands all around it in a circle, reaching in. The villagers grow cashew trees and also fruits, like oranges and mangoes, but they usually sell these instead of eating them in order to buy the rice.” Vitale brought several sacks of rice, some over-the-counter medicines, and she bought more rice during her stay, when the village’s stocks ran low.

The Ultimate Value of Forging Alliances
Her ability to engage her subjects and make friends quickly has had other consequences besides simply helping her make good photographs. “My worst close call was in a village in Palestine, in Gaza,” she says. “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 crazy man started screaming ‘CIA! CIA!’ at me, and within seconds I was surrounded by this crowd of young, very angry men. There had been a lot of killings in that area, people were very angry, and I knew there was no reasoning with a mob. They wanted blood. They wanted vengeance.”

Vitale had spent time earlier with the family of the Palestinian who had been killed, however, including several women from the man’s family. These women, who had been standing on the periphery of the crowd, now stepped forward to escort Vitale to safety. “They came up to me and grabbed me and started screaming at the men, saying, ‘She’s okay, she’s okay,’ and they took me away. But if they hadn’t been there, if I hadn’t spent the day with them, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Bringing It All Back Home
Vitale recently moved to Montana to work on a book and further develop her multimedia skills. She’s not taking a complete break from her peripatetic life though, still traveling internationally nearly every month this year. Yet it’s definitely an improvement over the time when she would see her home base for a maximum of only three weeks during an entire year.

She recently did a film on climate change and its impact on the Third World, focusing in this case on Bangladesh. She now hopes to broaden her scope and document how global warming is affecting cultures around the globe.

Migration resulting from climate change is a key part of the story. “One of the organizations I’m working with is called Rippleffectimages.org, and in particular we’re trying to highlight how the women in developing nations are being affected. As farming becomes more difficult, there’s been massive migration to the cities to find work. The men go, and the women are left behind in the villages to do what farming there is and take care of the children. They also have to travel farther and farther to reach water. We’re trying to tell these stories.”

Yet Vitale would also like to find subjects to photograph and stories to tell here in the U.S. “I’d love to find a local story here in the West,” she says. “I’ve been a gypsy for so long; it would be very nice to put down some roots here, at least for a few years.”

For young photographers hoping to forge careers similar to hers, Vitale counsels patience and dedication to the craft. “Realize that it often takes time to become the photographer you want to be,” she says. “The best photographers out there did not start making amazing images from the first day they picked up a camera. It took time and patience and commitment. Also, remember that you don’t have to travel the world. Some of the best stories are in your own backyard, and you’re the best one to tell them, since you’ll understand them better than anyone. Every job you do, whether it’s shooting a portrait, a PTA meeting or a wedding, can be a learning experience. Everything you do is an opportunity to learn and gain insight. You have to be able to find the joy and value in the mundane. If you can do that, you’re going to be a success.”

TECH BOX

CAMERA: Nikon D3S
LENSES: AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED,
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, 
PC-E NIKKOR 24mm f/3.5D ED
LIGHTING: Nikon SB-800 AF Speedlights,
Lightware Direct FourSquare lighting kit
DIFFUSION: Lastolite softbox and gold/white reflector
AUDIO: Marantz PMD660 portable compact flash digital recorder with XL
Seinheiser microphone, Seinheiser lavalier microphones for interviews, Rodes X/Y stereo on-camera microphone with juicedlink preamp for the Nikon D3S.
ADDITIONAL GEAR: Manfrotto 501HDV Pro Fluid Video Head Tripod,
Induro Carbon CT series tripod, Redrockmicro RunningMan DSLR nano rig, 
Lowepro Pro-Roller-x200
COMPUTERS: 15-inch Macbook Pro
SOFTWARE: 
Apple Aperture 3, Photoshop CS5, Final Cut Pro 7

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