Professional Insights

Professional Insights

Ami Vitale

Ami Vitale

Photojournalism (U.S.A.)

My job is about telling meaningful stories that will create awareness and hopefully inspire change for the better.

Rediscovering the Soul of a Forgotten Land

I'm presently writing from the small West African country of Guinea-Bissau. I am here to revisit a village where I began my career as a photographer ten years ago. Young and very green, I had applied for a grant on a whim. To my delight and horror, I got it – even beating out some National Geographic photographers who had also applied that year. I had no idea what I was doing and was terrified. But the judges felt there was something special about my proposal to document a small village in an unstable country torn apart by war.

Flash forward to 2011, and not much has changed in Guinea-Bissau. Bullet holes still pockmark the elegant facade of the presidential palace, its gutted interior still blackened by bombs from a civil war fought over a decade before. One aid organization working in the area has unearthed approximately 3,000 anti-personnel mines in the capital and is still digging up unexploded ordnance in the countryside. Corruption, a devastated economy and continuing instability continue to erode the urban center, while crumbling infrastructure and skirmishes with separatists in neighboring Senegal have caused thousands of civilians to flee border areas. Despite my experiences working in such places, returning felt just as terrifying as when I first arrived ten years ago.

Guinea-Bissau is a forgotten state. Few flights arrive here each week, aid agencies are scarce, and now the country is being called Africa's only narco-state, a nation controlled and corrupted by drug cartels. As a recent U.N. report concluded, it has everything criminals need: "resources, a strategic location, weak governance and an endless source of foot soldiers who see few viable alternatives to a life of crime." Many fear this will further destabilize the already volatile country.

Even getting a visa was a challenge. Every phone number I found for a consulate or embassy was disconnected, and flights to neighboring Senegal had been canceled for weeks due to conflict near the border. I finally came across a number in New York. The woman who answered was the UN representative, running the consulate out of her home for the last seven years because the country was too poor to pay rent for an office. After a few questions, she paused: "I know you," she said, laughing, "You sat next to me on the plane to Bissau 10 years ago. I still have a photo of you with my daughter." I was shocked. This was a powerful reminder that despite all the problems, it's the people who make a place special, and it is personal connections that help me through obstacles.

Once I landed, my fears washed away. I once studied Pulaar, the local language, and now I was putting it to good use, remembering all its elaborate greetings. This was the single most important thing I could have done to prepare for my trip. It kept me safe. As I took public transport to the village, my fellow passengers stared at me with shock and delight. They were so thrilled that a foreign woman would know some of their language that I could tell right away no one would ever harass me. Instead, I was met with laughter, smiles and gracious offers to carry my belongings. The women in the village saw me first and began running to greet me. I cried, they cried, we laughed and settled in for the night. I spent 12 days there, listening to their stories and taking photos.

I learned on my first visit that every day is a struggle for Guineans, but I was mesmerized by the people who gave so much to open up my eyes to the beauty and sadness of their lives. Through it all, I was reminded of how similar we all are despite the distances between us.

On my last evening in 2001, I sat with a group of children beneath a sea of stars talking into the night about my return home. One of the children, Alio, innocently asked me if we had a moon in America. It seemed so symbolic and touching that he should feel like America was a separate world. I was able to meet Alio again this time around. Now he is a young man with a cell phone and a worldly vision. I asked him if he remembered our conversation about the moon. He laughed shyly and said, "Yes, I know now – we share the sun and moon – but here you are our guest, so we will share ours with you." Once again I was reminded that no matter how desperate and impoverished a place may look, the truth is that nearly everyone on this planet shares the same values. I see a lot of people with common notions of kindness, peace, generosity and a sense of community, and the moon serves as a constant reminder that we are all tied together in an intricate web, whether we believe it or not.

What's in My Bag for Africa, 2011

Back in 2001, all I needed was a bag of film, a camera and a lens. This time around however, the technology has changed dramatically, with digital bodies and video objectives in addition to what you need for still photography. This complicates things because there is no electricity in remote villages like this. I also have to carry everything on my own, so I must travel light.

I settled on two Nikon D7000 bodies, an AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, an AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II and my new favorite lens, the tilt and shift perspective lens, PC-E NIKKOR 24mm f/3.5D ED. I also brought a tripod, a preamp and microphone, four extra batteries for the camera bodies, two flashes and extra batteries, several Sandisk memory cards, a Lastolite reflector, a small 10-inch notebook and two 1TB hard drives for my files. This all fits in one backpack. For power, I am using the Goalzero Sherpa 120 solar panel, which worked like a charm. Bringing extra batteries also helped, allowing me to recharge as I worked.

The Story is the Goal

Having spent time in nearly 75 countries, you could say that I'm a traveler. However, my job has never been about the traveling or about making beautiful images. It's about getting close to people, listening and looking intimately at life and the world we live in. It's about telling meaningful stories that will create awareness and hopefully inspire change for the better. I've seen a lot of poverty, civil unrest and destruction of life, but more importantly, I've also witnessed surreal beauty and the enduring power of the human spirit. I don't think we see enough powerful and inspiring stories despite the fact that there are so many left untold. My goal is to tell these stories.

Kashmir, and the Importance of Staying Put

I lived in India for almost six years, and nearly four of those years were in Kashmir. The place captured my heart on my very first visit, and each year afterward I found ways to fund my work there. I received several grants, and it became a very important piece of my life and my understanding of the world. I believe that the only way to understand the complexities that exist in all of our cultures and conflicts is by living in a particular place for a long period of time. As I see it, the problem with most mainstream media is the ephemeral nature it so often takes. Journalists never stay long enough to show the multitude of viewpoints that exist. "Parachuting in" and then leaving is simply not an option to me. I think that only contributes to stereotyping and sensational coverage of these very complex stories and the history behind them.

Kashmir is an unbelievably beautiful place, and I wanted to show how this exquisite culture was being lost to conflict. The traditions and the natural beauty of this place were degenerating into a language of mourning. I understand some may think pretty pictures lack gravitas, but my point was to show an unexpected side of war: the people caught in the middle. Unless we can be touched by humanity, then resolution is impossible. We must be forced to see ourselves in the faces of war and realize that in fact, we are all no different.

The most difficult part of what I do is the emotional toll, yet despite all the sadness I witness, I am grateful for all these experiences. I think it has made me a richer and more compassionate person. Rather than succumb to hopelessness, I can look at situations more clearly, with real ideas about how to make a difference. There is always some way I can make a change – starting with myself is not a bad place to begin.

The Importance of Self-Reliance

One of the more difficult aspects of my work is dealing with loneliness. Over the course of several years, I probably had a maximum of two or three weeks at home. It sounds incredibly exotic to travel the world, but the reality is that you must be emotionally self-reliant. I look back on experiences I had and wonder just how I got through them. The irony, however, is that I believe this is the best job in the world. Traveling alone has opened up endless possibilities to meet the most incredible people – people whom I may not have met if traveling with a team. They changed my life, showed me all the possibilities that exist and inspired me to continue. There is an upside to being vulnerable.

What "Clicks," and What Doesn't

Traveling the world and moving from one locale to the next, "clicking" pictures of beautiful places and lovely people. You may ask yourself: "How hard can it be?" Let me tell you from experience: it's a tough job if you are serious about it, and you have to be serious about it if you want to make a living at it. The truth is, very little "clicking" happens. That is about ten percent of the job. The rest is sheer hard work, planning, researching, editing, negotiating and finding unique ways to tell stories. 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.

The Nature Conservancy and My Sense of Hope

On a recent assignment for the Nature Conservancy, I had the unique opportunity to travel to 11 diverse and fascinating destinations, ranging from the tropical climates of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands to the rugged terrains of Western Australia. I experienced lush locations in China, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Mexico and Alaska, among others. After years covering conflicts and witnessing the deeply depressing sides of humanity for so many years, this assignment was truly a gift. The experience completely infused me with a sense of hope and understanding that changed the way I view the world.

For this project, the Nature Conservancy brought in world-renowned designers such as Yves Behar, Stephen Burks, Hella Jongerius, Maya Lin and Isaac Mizrahi. These artists took a sustainable resource from each location and created a work of art that can be produced to support local populations so they do not have to rely on limited, non-sustainable resources for their livelihoods. It's a powerful concept because the indigenous groups are so often left out of the equation as protectors of the planet. It is necessary to recognize that those living in these threatened environments are the ones who can determine its destiny if we as consumers give them a chance.

My Leap of Faith into Video

The medium is changing and video is now playing a much larger role. Cameras can now shoot HD video, which dramatically enhances our abilities as storytellers. This is already playing a big part in my future, but I don't think I would have made the leap into shooting video without Nikon. When they called and asked if I knew anything about making videos, I bluffed: "Yes of course," I replied instantly, knowing that in actuality I would have a lot to learn. I assumed I'd have time to learn before the shoot, but due to a rushed schedule, I was frantically studying the manual on the 28-hour-long journey to the first shoot. I arrived petrified, wondering if I had just made the greatest mistake of my life. The following – a homage to India – is the film I made there. Open in new window.

Without this opportunity, I may have never made the leap, but I'm so grateful I did. In a time when media is struggling and searching for a new path, I'm finding that I am busier than ever – telling meaningful stories in new ways, and for a variety of outlets.

Last year, I went back to school to study film and made my first documentary film, which is now being submitted to film festivals. I also shot a variety of short films for new clients. It's an exciting time to be a photographer and journalist and this new skill can lead to more opportunities for all of us. The old models of business are in crisis, but there is hope ahead. We must redefine ourselves as technologies open up different ways of working.


Ami Vitale's journey as a photojournalist has taken her to some of the most remote corners of the planet. Her photographs can be seen in museums and galleries around the world, as well as in magazines such as National Geographic, Adventure, Geo, Newsweek, Time and Smithsonian. Through her work, Vitale has earned numerous awards from prestigious organizations such as World Press Photos, the Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism, the Lucie Award, the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Reporting, and the Magazine Photographer of the Year award, among many others.

Now based in Montana, Vitale is a contract photographer with National Geographic magazine and frequently holds workshops throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia. She is also making a documentary film on migration in Bangladesh and writing a book that tells the stories behind some of her most powerful images.