Wander Woman

By Maria Neuman 

It’s easy to envy Ami Vitale. In the past 20 years, the photojournalist has traveled to more than 100 countries documenting cultural phenomena—from the dramatic landscapes of Bhutan to panda cubs returned to the wild in China to orphaned baby elephants being bottle-fed by an indigenous community protecting the wildlife in northern Kenya. But her jet-setting isn’t just an exciting job. Ultimately, her goal is to promote hope and encourage change. 

When the Grass Is Greener 

“I probably get 25 to 50 messages a day from people telling me they’d like to be a National Geographic photographer,” says Vitale, who calls Montana her home base but confesses to not having been there for more than 24 hours within the last nine months. This past year has seen her release a book, Panda Love: The Secret Life of Pandas (Hardie Grant); and she also photographed Sudan, the last male northern white rhino in the world, moments before his death in Kenya.

Self-Reliance Required  

“People romanticize what I do, but you must be emotionally strong and self-reliant,” says the Nikon Camera Ambassador and winner of a 2018 World Press Photo award for her work at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Kenya. “I’m on my own a lot, and many of the situations are challenging and sometimes heartbreaking but also often beautiful.” 

No Room for Fear 

As a college student in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Vitale initially pursued engineering but found herself drawn to visual storytelling. “I would ride my bike around, fascinated by the diversity of the people—farmers living next to millionaires—and it felt like a lens into America.” She spent the next year knocking on every door, taking portraits, and discovered that personal connections and empathy are the keys to capturing a great image. “It really taught me to not fear people who are different from you.”

Turn an Obstacle into Opportunity  

After leaving the US for her first job as a photographer for a newspaper in the Czech Republic and then living in a remote village in the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau for six months on a grant from the Alexia Foundation, it was her four years in Kashmir, India, that put her on National Geographic’s radar. As the lone female photojournalist working there at that time, she realized the huge challenge of being a woman in a male-dominated genre—but also how to turn a hurdle into opportunity. “Many doors closed to me, but I had access to the lives of women and I was able to amplify their voices in a conservative culture,” she relays. “You have to have some grit, and I found over the years that the biggest challenge is often yourself.”  

Nature Connects Us 

Although her upcoming projects—capturing the endangered giraffes all over Africa and a lion translocation in Mozambique—focus on wildlife conservation, she resists being labeled a wildlife photographer. “I’m really a people photographer, animals with people in them,” she laughs. “I’m telling the story of what connects us all, and I am using the lens of nature. Every issue I cover—whether war, poverty or health—always ends up being dependent on nature for its outcomes.”

Article by Mosaic and provided courtesy of Morgan Stanley.

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