By Jim Colton
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” ― Robert F. Kennedy
Those words spoken at the University of Capetown on June 6, 1966, in the midst of the Apartheid movement, are considered by many historians to be among Robert F. Kennedy’s finest speeches. And at its core, the message contained is one that all of us as journalists and human beings strive for in our professional and personal lives. We hope that the actions we take, and the stories we tell, will have a positive effect on our audience. Few in this business have done that as well as Ami Vitale.
Vitale’s formal education includes a degree in International Studies from the University of North Carolina and a Masters from the University of Miami. Her work has been honored with almost every possible photographic award from organizations including World Press Photo, POYi, NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism, the Lucie Awards, the Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism, and the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Reporting.
Her photographs have graced the pages of publications worldwide including Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, GEO and the Smithsonian to name a few. She is also on the board of the Alexia Foundation and gives back generously to the industry in the form of judging and workshops….including the Eddie Adams Workshop, where she was also once a student.
Most recently, she has been working with an organization called Ripple Effects Images, consisting of a team of journalists dedicated to documenting the plight of poor women and girls around the world, and highlighting the programs that are helping to empower them.
Vitale’s generosity is matched by her enthusiasm and dedication to her work. She is admittedly quiet and shy, but her photographs are powerful and speak volumes. Her images show a genuine and deeper understanding of the world we live in. Photography for Vitale is about unique story telling through common bonds. As she puts it, “There is a beautiful, universal truth everywhere and, if you peek under the veil, you’ll find a wondrous commonality between us.”
This week, zPhotoJournal has a conversation with Ami Vitale as we peek under her veil and discuss the pebbles she has tossed into the photojournalism pond.
Jim Colton: Please tell our readers how you first got started in this business. What or who were some of your earliest influences?
Ami Vitale: As a young woman, I was shy and introverted but when I picked up a camera, it gave me a reason to connect with people. Photography was incredibly empowering and later became 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.
Hugh Talman, who is a staff photographer at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, gave me my first internship when I was 16 and it sparked my initial interest in photography. I made prints all day in the barrel of the Museum, down in the darkroom every Wednesday and was surrounded by supremely talented photographers and wonderful teachers.
I've been helped by so many people along the way including my first professor Rich Beckman of the University of Miami who saw talent before any really existed. He encouraged me to apply for grants and even today, still reviews my proposals as he did when I was a student. Once a student of Rich….always a student; we never leave him!
The staff first at the Raleigh News and Observer, USA Today and then Associated Press in Washington DC and later NYC helped me cut my teeth in the business. I was with some of the greatest photographers and editors of our time. There are too many people to list here but honestly, everyone in those offices was brilliant and gave me a little more courage to push forward.
Peter and Aphrodite Tsairis at the Alexia Foundation gave me my first grant that changed the course of my life. Without that opportunity, I would never be doing what I’m doing now.
Short story about that grant: My proposal was to go to Guinea Bissau in West Africa. It was then, and it remains today, one of the poorest countries on earth. I thought I would visit for a few weeks. Those weeks turned into months, then half a year! It was there - without the pressure of a deadline, or the expectation of a magazine - that I learned the importance of patience and of taking time to tell a story.
Most people have no running water, no electricity but despite what you might imagine, there was a lot of joy there. I discovered a place that is rarely reported in the mainstream press. It was not the Africa of war and famines, nor was it the idealized world of safaris and exotic animals. Instead it was a look into the simplicity and beauty of how the majority of people on this planet live.
My last evening in the small village, I sat with a group of children beneath a sea of stars talking through 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, and serves as a constant reminder that we are all tied together in an intricate web, whether we believe it or not.
Susan Meiselas and Larry Towell gave me my second grant from Magnum in memory of Inge Morath that allowed me to continue my work in Kashmir and learn what commitment to a story really means. I ended up living there for 4 years covering the long and ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan.
Ruth Eichhorn gave me my first big break at GEO magazine and Sarah Leen taught me so much on my first story at National Geographic. Both of them are strong women with powerful voices. They have been great role models for me.
Annie Griffiths, Lynn Johnson, Janet Jarman, Deanne Fitzmaurice, Andrea Bruce, Stephanie Sinclair, Lynsey Addario, Christie Johnston, Amy Toensing....they are all a constant source of inspiration.
Finally, Michael Corrado and all the people at Nikon have been supporters and given me opportunities that have changed my life. For example; allowing me to shoot the ad for the D300s (see link below) set me on a path to becoming a film maker. Making me a Nikon Ambassador has been a privilege and they have given me great speaking opportunities that have helped me grow and get better at the art of teaching.
There are so many others Jim and you are included in this list. I’ve always admired your commitment and that deep selflessness you have. It rubs off on the next generation. I am sure I would have had a very different life without all of your help.
JC: You were once a student at the Eddie Adams Workshop. And coming full circle, you have returned there as an instructor. What can you remember about your experience there...what you got out of it? And how does it make you feel to come back as faculty?
AV: I remember when I arrived as a student at the Eddie Adams Workshop; all that I felt was sheer terror! There were so many supremely talented people there and I felt overwhelmed and unqualified. I was sure that I didn't have much talent or the courage to do this. Then I heard John White speak. I remember how eloquent his talk was. He had this quiet presence but he was powerful and passionate. It resonated and inspired me deeply. I learned from John that quiet is okay.
I also remember there were less women in the business back then but Lynn Johnson, Yunghi Kim, Carol Guzy, Joyce Tenneson, among others were there and they inspired me to push on with my dreams. I did not know then but the workshop probably charted my destiny in some ways.
When I go back to teach, I empathize with the students because I can remember how I felt sitting in that barn. And interestingly, I feel just as scared today standing up and sharing my own stories as I did when I was listening as a student. It’s humbling to be in a room with people you admire this much.
JC: You also conduct a workshop in your home state of Montana. I understand it's deliberately a smaller class size. Can you tell us a little about that workshop...and life in general in Montana?
AV: Since I moved to Montana 4 years ago I wanted to learn more about the land and the people's deep connection to it. I found it fascinating that despite where people are on the political spectrum, they have one thing in common here and that is a deep love for the nature around us. I cannot escape the feeling that people here are shaped by the land itself and they in turn help shape the land.
The folks whom I have gotten to know are hardworking and honest. It is not an easy place to live, especially in the winter. It takes a special kind of person to survive our long dark and cold months. And if you are a rancher, every season after winter is backbreaking and filled with 16-hour days. By the time spring rolls around, everyone is up to something. The planting season is short and folks waste no time in working the land. Trailers are moving everywhere, hauling cows and horses to summer pastures, calving is in full swing, and families are preparing to come together with their neighbors for branding. While beautiful, this place is remote, unforgiving and isolated. You have to be incredibly self-sufficient. The hard work is unrelenting. It’s a 24 hour, 7 day a week job and there is no time off. Nature dictates whether you will succeed or fail here.
I wanted to share a piece of this place and teach photography at the same time. I also realize that I am able to give so much more with smaller and more intimate classes.
JC: You are very active in other workshops and organizations like the Alexia Foundation (see link below) and also giving back to the industry as a judge for many contests including World Press Photo in Amsterdam. How important are those things in the broader sense of all that you do?
AV: I would not be who I am without the guidance and support from so many people. They have given selflessly and I feel a profound sense that I need to pay it forward. Success is not just about your own personal accomplishments. Those feel empty after a short time. I get so much more joy seeing friends/students achieve a personal goal and it feels wonderful if you have any small part in their success. I also find I learn more by teaching than I do by shooting more photos.
JC: You were named a "Nikon Ambassador." (See link below) What does that title mean both in a sense of responsibility to Nikon but also in a broader sense to you personally?
AV: It’s a great honor and responsibility that I don’t take for granted. I’m privileged to share this platform with some of the best names in the business. It’s allowed me to get to know and learn from these photographers who also happen to be genuine and generous. It’s given me a great platform to teach and hopefully share whatever experience I have with a diverse audience.
JC: On the Nikon site you are quoted as saying, "I believe objectivity is an illusion but I also believe that there are a multitude of viewpoints and that no one ‘Truth’ exists." Can you explain that philosophy in a little greater detail for our readers?
AV: In Journalism school I was taught to “be objective.” I don’t think this is truly possible. We are all tainted by a set of beliefs and it impacts how we tell stories. A multitude of narratives prevent a singular narrative. Through a multitude of stories, a balance is maintained and truth, whether it exists or not, is safeguarded by not being singled out. All opinions must be questioned and all perceptions have validity. In the absence of a multitude of narratives, reason remains ruined.
As journalists, I believe understanding the complexities that exist in all of our cultures and conflicts comes by staying for a long period of time. We never stay long enough to show the multitude of viewpoints that exist. Parachuting in and then leaving can contribute to stereotyping and sensational coverage of these very complex histories and stories.
JC: I understand that some photos of yours were used without permission to illustrate the #bringbackourgirls story about the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram. Tell us briefly what happened and where do things stand now?
AV: An image of Awa Balde and another image of Jenabu Balde, young African girls whose photos I took back in 2000 and then later when I returned in 2011 for the Alexia Foundation, gained the attention of millions as a Twitter post calling for the release of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by the terror group Boko Haram. The tweet, bearing the now ubiquitous hashtag #bringbackourgirls, was soon retweeted by everyone from Chris Brown to the BBC. The image, and importantly the girl in the image, quickly became the symbol for a global cause. There was just one thing: the girl was not one of the abductees. In fact, she wasn’t even Nigerian.
I jumped onto Twitter and quickly researched to find out who began the campaign. I discovered it was a Nigerian man who had a design studio. I immediately started writing him letters and sending him tweets asking him to remove the photos from his campaign. The girls in my photos are not victims from Nigeria. Using these images and portraying them as victims is not truthful. When I wrote to individuals asking them to take down these photos, many didn't want to take responsibility. The first response was, “well it’s already been retweeted thousands of times, why does it matter anymore?” That surprised me. They often assume the people in the photos are models.
I also learned that one image of the crying girl had been stolen thousands of times before this campaign and her face was being used to illustrate everything from child rape to sexual trafficking to religion. So I have a huge job of trying to write to every single website that is using these photos without permission.
Their faces have become a representation of sexual trafficking. That’s not fair to them. I just want the same standards applied. It’s not okay to misappropriate a picture in the name of human rights. I understand we are in very difficult place right now and we have to establish more rules and understanding.
For the past 3 months I have been searching the internet and issuing takedown notices when their images are used out of context. It helped that James Estrin wrote a blog on the New York Times website Lens (see link below) to get attention. I know this happens to lots of people and we need to educate them about the power of social media and our responsibility to protect the people we photograph.
JC: You are part of a group of journalists in an organization called: Ripple Effect Images. (see link below) For those who are not familiar with it, can you briefly describe the organization and its hopes and goals?
AV: It was started by Annie Griffiths and we are a group of journalists dedicated to the mission of raising awareness and funding to help empower women and girls in emerging nations around the world. The organization works with NGOs, ambassadors, corporate leaders, and the State Department to document and support projects that help women help their families and communities. Ripple Effect recognizes that programs that give women the tools to affect change are some of the most effective programs, because women reinvest those resources and share them with others.
JC: You've been extremely busy and on-the-road a lot and have some very exciting projects ahead of you this year. Please tell us more about these two upcoming projects: Danube Revisited: The Inge Morath Truck Project….and….The Last of the Northern White Rhinos.
AV: Both of these projects are unique because they were funded through crowd funding sites. The impetus for the White Rhinos project (see link below) was a call to action. I had worked on a story and knew I needed to go back and go deeper without the pressure of a deadline. I wanted to do something to create audience engagement and this was a perfect platform for it.
The Danube project (see links below) was a collaborative venture between 9 photographers. It’s much less about our own experience as it is creating an experience for young women photographers and giving them a platform to share their work and see the work of the great Inge Morath.
JC: You cover a lot of long-term projects and stories that have you on the road for extended periods of time which require great commitment on your part. How do you balance that with all that you do...and how do you fund these endeavors?
AV: The hardest part is balancing my personal life with my career. It’s very hard on any family. I’m lucky because I’ve been a freelancer almost my entire career. It’s not scary to me and I never give up on a story I truly believe in. Normally I pitch a story and try and get it funded first. If that does not happen, I will self-fund a project if I really believe in it and later I will sell it. Recently, I have been using crowd funding as an option as well. Eventually I find a home for it but it does take a tremendous amount of time, commitment and perseverance.
JC: With the ever changing editorial market, we see a lot more still photographers venturing into video and multimedia. Do you have a different mindset when shooting stills vs video?
AV: Video is a natural jump for photographers and can actually make you a better photographer. It forces you to think about stories in different ways and gives you a new set of tools to tell those stories. For video, you need to plan and know what the story will be. It’s not the same as still photography where you show up and document whatever moves. Now I think much more deeply about symbolism, the story, and I get a different level of intimacy with my subjects.
JC: Of the over 85 countries you've been to, what has been your favorite and why...and in the interest of fair play...maybe not so favorite?
AV: Ha! I can’t answer this Jim! My favorite country is Montana! Why? Because it’s home and for most of my life I was a gypsy. It feels good to connect with a place in a meaningful way. But if you pushed and I had to choose one foreign assignment; photographing 14 baby pandas in China was probably the best assignment ever! They really are as adorable as they look. They can literally melt your heart and if you wanted to know, they smell like bamboo or wet puppies.
Least favorite...I think the hardest ones are the best because I learn the most. Struggling with the physical, mental and emotional challenges makes you a better and stronger person. I would not give any of it up. I constantly learn how adaptable we all are and that we can survive in the most unlikely places.
JC: Lastly, any parting thoughts, advice or words of encouragement that you'd like to share with aspiring photojournalists that may want to walk in your shoes?
AV: 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.
Also, remember that we are storytellers. It’s not just about making beautiful photos. There is a beautiful, universal truth everywhere and, if you peek under the veil, you’ll find a wondrous commonality between us. I hope that you will use your camera not just as an extension of your eye but also as an extension of your heart.
Instagram & Facebook: AmiVitale
DO YOU HAVE A STORY YOU THINK IS A GOOD CANDIDATE FOR ZPHOTOJOURNAL? EMAIL YOUR SUGGESTION TO: JIM.COLTON@ZUMAPRESS.COM