Vital Impacts – Interview with National Geographic Photographer Ami Vitale
- Marianne Stenger
- 22nd March 2022
How did you first get involved with conservation photography?
I began my career covering war and the horrors of the world. After a decade, I realized a profound truth; I had been telling stories about people and the human condition but the backdrop of each and every one of these stories was the natural world.
In some cases, it was scarcity of basic resources like water. In others, it was the changing climate and loss of fertile lands but always it was the demands placed on our ecosystem that drove conflict and human suffering. There are still billions on the planet who do not have access to clean water.
Today, my work is not just about people. It's not just about wildlife either. It's about how the destiny of both people and wildlife are intertwined and how small and deeply interconnected our world is.
I can recall the exact moment when I truly understood this. It happened on a cold, snowy day in December 2009 in a village outside of Prague. It was on this day that I met a rhino named Sudan for the first time. And quite unexpectedly, this animal changed the way I see the world forever.
I heard about a plan to airlift four of the last Northern White Rhinos from Safari Park Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic back to Africa. The hope was that the air, water, and food, not to mention room to roam, might stimulate them to breed—and the offspring would then be used to repopulate Africa. Back then, there were only eight of these gentle, hulking creatures alive, all in zoos. Today there are two, both in Kenya at Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
This story I began 13 years ago helped me to understand that we need to start recognizing that we are not separate from nature. When we see ourselves as part of the landscape and part of nature, then saving nature is really about saving ourselves.
Our fate is linked to the fate of animals. We need these sentient beings as much as they need us. Without rhinos and elephants and other wildlife we suffer more than loss of ecosystem health. We suffer a loss of imagination, a loss of wonder, a loss of beautiful possibilities.
What happens next is in all of our hands. Nature is resilient if we give it a chance and make it a priority. All of us have the ability to ignite action to help shape the world we want to live in. Get involved. There is a role for each and every one of us. The Messenger matters as much as the message. It’s important that more of us become that messenger.
One of the things you have talked about a lot is the importance of highlighting not just the shocking or negative stories, but also the ones that remind us of the beauty of nature and the best of humanity. How do you find this balance in your work?
For the past 25 years, I have been reporting on stories about humanity's impacts on the planet. Human activity has placed one million plant and animal species in immediate danger of extinction, causing what scientists have identified as the sixth major extinction event on this planet.
This extinction event is different—not only is it driven by humans but it is happening at an incredibly fast and accelerating rate. Removal of a keystone species has a huge effect on the ecosystem and impacts all of us. These giants are part of a complex world created over millions of years, and their survival is intertwined with our own survival.
I believe that the only way out of this is to help people fall in love with the world around us. By only focusing on the horrors of the world, it has the opposite effect. I think we must shine a light on and amplify all the beautiful voices and stories that remind us of what we can achieve together if we make saving nature a priority.
Your story Women of Impact features striking photos of women on the frontlines of climate change. Can you tell us a little about how local communities, and women in particular, can play a role in protecting local habitats and wildlife?
I work a lot with women on issues of climate change because it turns out women are being impacted the most when climates are changing. For example, they have to walk farther to get water. Their lives are being impacted, but when you empower a woman, she doesn’t help just herself, she helps the whole community and lifts the whole community up.
I think these stories are really important to share because it’s understanding that we are all connected. Sometimes it’s very hard to realize that deep connection we have to one another, but in the places, the stories I work on, I feel that intricate connection and I also have become more aware of the impact we all have. Everything we do, every choice we make has this profound impact that is sometimes unseen, but it does ripple through the planet.
This question might be a bit difficult to answer, but are there any conservation stories you’ve worked on or maybe even particular images that stand out to you as favourites?
I have been working in Northern Kenya for over a decade. I heard about this impossible dream one community had to create an elephant sanctuary in Northern Kenya.
People were suffering because when you take these keystone species out, everything suffers. The community there, without a lot of political power and no money, decided that they had to change the trajectory that they were on. They also wanted to make the area safe, so that the wild elephants would come back.
Back then, elephants that were orphaned were being sent to southern Kenya never to return back to their own landscape to have the chance to be reunited with their own herds. So, the community said, “We want to create our own sanctuary and keep these elephants here as part of this landscape,” and really took ownership.
The other piece of the story, which is so incredible, is that they also proposed that Samburu women would be elephant keepers. Everybody thought, “That’s ludicrous. It’s never going to happen. Women can’t be elephant keepers.”
These women when I first met them were introverted and shy. When I would ask them a question, they would whisper the answer. Today, they are so confident and proud of what they are doing.
What I love about this story is that it’s not just a story about adorable baby elephants. It’s a story also about how people relate with the wild, it’s also about how they relate with one another and how they’ve transformed how people are treating each other, how they live, the future of this landscape and every living creature.
Finally, do you have any advice for photographers who would like to use their skills to promote conservation, whether here in the UK or abroad?
The secret to finding a career in this very competitive field is to go deep and reveal more than just a series of “exotic” images.
Sticking with a story for years helps you understand the complexities, characters and issues that are not always immediately obvious.
I’m a really slow photographer. I go back and back again. Empathy and earning trust is the most important tool one can have.
The trick is to get access to places that no one else can get to, and the secret to this is to know your subject better than anyone else.
So my advice to those who dream about this is to find a story close to you – maybe even in your backyard – and make it yours. You don't need to travel abroad. What you do need to do, however, is tell a story better than anyone else can, using your own unique perspective. If you find your own story and show complete and utter dedication, then you will find a way to carve out a career.
Want to learn more about the ins and outs of conservation photography and how you can get involved? Check out our interview with environmental activist, wildlife photographer and award-winning author Mark Cardwardine.