Conflict and the camera: National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale captures images of war and wildlife with her Nikon

Ami Vitale
Ami Vitale submerges up to her chest in water during an assignment in Kenya. (Courtesy of Ami Vitale)

By Saeed Abdullah
Medill Reports

Ami Vitale has lived in war zones, endured malaria and traveled to over 100 countries to document the brutality of conflict and the beauty of wildlife. The six-time winner of the World Press Photo award and author of “Panda Love: The Secret Lives of Pandas” (2018) talks about the bamboo-eating mammals and efforts to breed them. Vitale is launching a nonprofit called Vital Impacts to announce her inaugural print sale with a curated selection of fine art prints by photographers known for their dedication to the planet.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

You have covered poaching in Africa, human-wildlife conflict and efforts to save the northern white rhino and to restore pandas to the wild. What motivated you to become a photographer?

As a young woman, I was painfully shy, gawky and introverted. I did not have clear direction or know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Something incredible happened when I picked up a camera. It gave me a reason to interact with people and took the attention away from myself. It empowered me, and photography became a passport to learning and experiencing new cultures. Today my motivations are very different from when I began. Photography and storytelling are much more than a tool for my own self-empowerment. They are a tool for creating awareness and understanding across culture, communities and countries.

18-month-old black rhino Kilifi
Kamara gets nuzzled by the 18-month-old black rhino Kilifi. He is raising him and two other baby rhinos at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. (Photo by Ami Vitale)

Can you describe living in war zones and contracting malaria?

It sounds exciting to travel the world, but the reality is that you must be emotionally and physically self-reliant. I look back on experiences I had and now wonder how I got through some of them. They were sometimes unimaginable, often lonely and occasionally utterly terrifying. I have had malaria, been charged by elephants and grizzly bears, but wild animals are a lot less terrifying than humans. I have been shot at, narrowly missed a missile as it vaporized a nearby building, harassed, threatened and learned quickly, especially as a woman, that I have to be thoughtful about how and where I work. No picture is worth my own personal safety. I am very lucky to be alive and profoundly grateful for all the courage and resilience others have shown me.

You won a Wildscreen Photo Story Panda Award, which celebrates the commitment and skill that it takes to tell nature’s stories, and first place in the 2018 World Press Photo contest for your series “Nature Stories.” What does that mean to you?

I am grateful for the awards, but also believe the awards have nothing to do with me. They really are meant for the extraordinary people whose stories I have been privileged to share.

Palestinians burn cars as protests flare near the West Bank town of Ramallah. (Photo by Ami Vitale)

As a photographer who loves adventure and travel, how did you handle the COVID-19 situation?

Nature sent us a strong message and reminded us of just how small and deeply interconnected our world is. It was a powerful moment to reimagine our relationship to nature and to one other. We can all consider a slower, more thoughtful approach to travel. There is an authentic connection that comes with a place when we take the time to understand its people, culture and natural beauty in a meaningful way.

What did you learn from that?

This profound moment reminded me of the importance of taking care of this planet and protecting existing habitats. Today nearly 1 million species are in danger of extinction. Our own health and destiny are intricately connected to the natural world and impacted by the loss of species. When we see ourselves as part of the landscape and part of nature, then we recognize that saving nature is about saving ourselves.

The 16 -year-old panda YeYe
The 16 -year-old panda YeYe waits inside her enclosure at the Wolong Nature Reserve, managed by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in the Sichuan province. (Photo by Ami Vitale)

You offer specialized online courses to share your experiences in photography with those who hope to become professional photographers. How would you describe teaching?

I believe in the importance of helping new and emerging photographers find their voice and develop their talent. I offer insightful, honest advice and discuss career aspirations. I also hold intimate workshops in Montana and Kenya, where we join other aspiring photographers to make pictures, discuss work and learn from one another under my guidance. I also give many talks about photography, the lessons and inspiration I have gained during my time working in over 100 countries.

Saeed Abdullah is a graduate student at Medill, and he specializes in video and broadcasting. You can follow him on Twitter @SA_Baabdullah.