- August 09, 2021
- 13 min to read
An Interview with Ami Vitale - National Geographic photographer
Nikon Ambassador and National Geographic magazine photographer Ami Vitale has traveled to more than 90 countries, bearing witness not only to violence and conflict, but also to surreal beauty and the enduring power of the human spirit.
'In the beginning, photography was my passport to meeting people, learning, and experiencing new cultures. Now it is more than just a passport. It’s a tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures, communities, and countries; a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share.'
What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos?
That the world is a magical place and that the kindness of strangers is real.
Why do you take photos?
Photography is powerful and it has the ability to create change and remind us of the best of humanity and what we can achieve.
What inspires you?
I'm easily inspired. I love being out in nature and discovering. I'm also inspired by other people and their variety of viewpoints.
Which photographers influenced you, and how did they influence your thinking, photographing, and career path?
There are so many but I would like to name 4 extraordinary women who paved the path for so many women who came after them. Susan Meiselas gave me confidence to find and use my voice. It was a very male dominated industry and she has tremendous courage but also a distinctly feminine side which is also about creating a sense of community. She taught me not to be afraid to push back if it was needed. Maggie Steber is a firecracker, full of heart and passion and she inspired me to find my creative path. Lynn Johnson is full of wisdom and taught me the power of quiet. Annie Griffiths taught me that you create your own destiny and just how powerful photography can be, especially when used for advocacy.
What do you want to say with your photographs, and how do you actually get your photographs to do that?
I've focused on continuing to tell the story of what connects us all but now I am using the lens of nature; Our home.
I realized as I take pictures of people and cultures, that even for wildlife and nature stories, I can bring that same sensibility into the images. Everything is connected to nature. Even though these issues I was covering were issues of security, every one of those issues ended up being dependent on nature for its outcomes. It's not really about animals. It’s really about us. I’m not a nature photographer. I use nature as the foil but its about us, our future, and where we are going.
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What technology/software/camera gear do you use?
I use Nikon. Currently the D5 and 24-70mm are my work horse.
How do you choose what you are going to shoot?
The stories take years to work on. I am looking for hidden parts of the most obvious stories.
What kind of tools do you use for post processing?Explain your work flow.
I download my work in the field on a portable drive and back it up on another drive. Once I get home, I download the entire shoot to the master drives and finish captioning and selecting the photos I want to consider for the final story. I create a folder of selects and then send everything to my editor. I don't touch anything in photoshop and at National Geographic, we are not even allowed to delete one image. They want to see everything and how we got to the final images.
Among your works, which one is your favorite? Why?
I think the b/w film work I did when I was in my early twenties in Guinea Bissau has a freedom and viewpoint that I can never get back. It was before I was trained in the profession and it had the rawness and sensitivity of youth.
What was the most curious story behind your photograph?
There were challenges as a photographer working on the panda story. First its very difficult to get access and trust. Secondly, How could I possibly create anything that might surprise our readers? The panda may be the most recognized and the most photographed animal alive on the planet. It is not that anyone hasn't seen a picture of a panda; we all have. Zoos pay millions for these panda “ambassadors” on loan from China and they never fail to attract a crowd. After going to China multiple times, getting to know the people, getting to understand the pandas and learning to really think like a panda, this story blew my mind. Its hard to imagine but these animals were once as mythical and elusive as Bigfoot. They have been around for millions of years, but were only discovered within the last century. the first one not captured alive in 1936.
In a region where bad environmental news is common, China is performing a minor miracle. The giant panda was recently taken off the endangered species list just one month after my story was published. I didn't know that would happen but I could see something fascinating was happening in China that had not yet been told.
Advice to young photographers:
Every story has a variety of viewpoints and truths depending on where you stand. It really takes tremendous time and patience to get to the subtleties and nuances of any story. We do need to focus on the challenges of the world but if we only focus on the things that divide us, we are on a fast race to the bottom. The world is a beautiful place, we need to celebrate the goodness because it is everywhere.