“We need a multitude of viewpoints to get closer to a universal truth.”

Ami Vitale is an award winning journalist and Nikon ambassador. Her photographs have been exhibited around the world and published in magazines including National Geographic, Adventure, Geo, Newsweek, Time, and the Smithsonian. Her work has garnered multiple awards including World Press Photo, the Lucie awards, the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Reporting, and the Magazine Photographer of the Year award, among many others.

All photos courtesy of Ami Vitale

Crowds mourn the death of a family of five following a grenade attack in a village near Srinagar in Badgam, Kashmir. This image was part of the Ami Vitale's story that won the 2nd prize for People in the News stories of 2004.

Crowds mourn the death of a family of five following a grenade attack in a village near Srinagar in Badgam, Kashmir. This image was part of the Ami Vitale’s story that won the 2nd prize for People in the News stories of the 2004 World Press Photo contest. (Photo courtesy of Ami Vitale)

Columbia Visuals: Is there one single issue that is closest to your heart?

Ami Vitale: For the last 13 years I’ve worked in over 85 countries covering issues primarily about women, poverty, health and security. I didn’t realize it at that time but all of these issues are really issues about nature. For quite some time, my work has focused on environmental issues. The irony is, very little of what I photograph is nature or landscape. Stories about the land are always stories about people. You cannot talk about one without the other. If recent storms and natural disasters tell us anything, it is that we are inextricably linked to the forces of nature. Climate change does impact us; no one is immune to it.

CV: A lot of your work can be seen as activism, do you see yourself as an activist too?

AV: I would not label myself in that way but when it comes to issues like illegal wildlife poaching or a changing climate, we are running out of time. Every day, more species are becoming extinct. I think that the best way to get this message across is by humanizing it. If we can make it real for people and give them some control over what they can do, then people are more likely to take some action.

CV: A lot of your work has revolved around women’s rights, is there anything that you like to encourage in young female photographers?

AV: There are many things I cannot photograph because I am a woman but when one door closes, another opens. I don’t attempt to do the same stories as my male counterparts. I have different access. We need a multitude of viewpoints to get closer to a universal truth. Having more women as storytellers, journalists and photographers will give us a broader view of what the world really looks like.

CV: Who are some of the photo editors and photographers that have helped shape your career?

AV: There are too many to name them all. Rich Beckman has been my biggest mentor and supporter over the years. The Alexia Grant helped me when I was not even a professional photographer. Susan Meiselas was very supportive when I had just moved to India. Larry Towell started the first Magnum Inge Morath Grant and that gave me a great start. The French Journalists Association and Jean Francois Leroy gave me great exposure at Perpignan and a grant. Sabine Meyer at Nat Geo Adventure and Ruth Eichorn at Geo Magazine published me when no one else knew who I was. Sarah Leen taught me so much on my first story with Geographic. The folks at TNC and OXFAM have been huge supporters. There are so many more people and it’s unfair to not mention them all.

CV: What is the best advice you were given when you were starting out?

AV: Photography is not about you. It’s about the people and stories you are photographing. There is a lot of rejection and heartache along the way, but as long as you don’t make it about you and remember it’s about telling people’s stories with dignity, you will succeed.

CV: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

AV: The beautiful universal truth is that if you get beyond the headlines, if you peek under the veil, you find a wonderful commonality between cultures and races.  We have an obligation to illuminate the things that unite us as human beings and bring us together rather than just tell stories that constantly divide.

Many people think this job is about travel and adventure but the truth is that it has very little to do with this. Rather, it is about being intimate with the culture, the people and the environment. It is as much about humanity as it is about location. Learn as much as you can about the culture and place before you take your camera out. Know why and what it is that you are trying to convey with your images. Authenticity and empathy are the most important qualities to be a good photographer.

CV: Are there any new challenges that you are looking to take on at this stage in your career?

AV: Bring on all the changes and challenges! I love it and it keeps me on my toes and learning. If you feel like you know everything, it’s time to hang up your hat. Times are changing and video is now playing a much bigger role in what we do. Cameras like the one I carry can shoot HD video, and it can enhance our abilities as storytellers.  This is already playing a big role in my future. I am embracing all the changes and technology. 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, for a variety of outlets.

All photos courtesy of Ami Vitale

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