Panda Cub, China, 2015

The biggest challenge was getting access to one of the world’s most endangered animals. This is a very rare, finicky endangered animal with teeth and claws. With only a few thousand in the world, the Chinese treat it as a national symbol, and each panda is closely guarded and watched. They are multi–million-dollar bears that everyone treats with kid gloves, and they are highly vulnerable. Getting close, without interfering with their biology and conservation, and in a way that is acceptable to its very protective minders, was challenging. It was not just about getting access and gaining local trust, but also about being able to work with a highly endangered animal.

The few opportunities that I was allowed to hold a baby panda, I literally thought I was going to die of cuteness overload. There is something about a baby panda. I’m sure it releases those same chemicals that they say get released when you look at your own baby. Like there’s just something indescribable, you fall in love. When I began the story, I didn’t have that wild panda fever but after spending so much time with them, I understand why people do.

Location: Bifengxia Panda Base, Sichuan, China
Photograph Date: 2015
Medium: Chromogenic Print
Edition: 200
Available Sizes: 40cm & 70cm

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About the Photographer

Ami Vitale

Growing up in Florida, Ami Vitale was, by her own admission, “an introverted, shy, gawky young woman.” Then, one day, she picked up a camera—and had an epiphany.

Not only did photography become her passport to engage with the world, it became a way of empowering others, especially women living in repressive cultures. Following in the footsteps of such iconic female photographers as Eve Arnold and Inge Morath, she has become one of the world’s most humane and empathetic visual storytellers.

As a Nikon Ambassador and National Geographic magazine photographer, she's traveled to more than 100 countries where she has witnessed civil unrest and violence, but also surreal beauty and the enduring power of the human spirit.

Throughout the years, Ami has lived in mud huts and war zones, contracted malaria, and donned a panda suit— keeping true to her belief in the importance of “living the story.”  In 2009, after shooting a powerful story on the transport and release of one the world’s last white rhinos, Ami shifted her focus to today’s most compelling wildlife and environmental stories.

She is an internationally known and respected journalist whose photographs have been commissioned by nearly every international publication and exhibited around the world in museums and galleries. Her work has garnered the Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism, Lucie awards, and five World Press Photo awards, including 1st Prize for her 2018 National Geographic magazine story about a community in Kenya protecting elephants. She has been named Magazine photographer of the year in the International Photographer of the Year prize, received the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Reporting, and named Magazine Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographer’s Association, among others.

Instyle Magazine named Ami one of fifty Badass Women, a series celebrating women who show up, speak up and get things done – appearing alongside incredible women including Jane Goodall, Christiane Amanpour and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was also the subject of the Mission Cover Shot series on the National Geographic Channel as well as another documentary series featuring Madagascar (Over the Islands of Africa).

She is a founding member of Ripple Effect Images, an organization of renowned female scientists, writers, photographers and filmmakers  working together to create powerful and persuasive stories that shed light on the hardships women in developing countries face and the programs that can help them. She is also on the Photojournalism Advisory Council for the Alexia Foundation.

She recently published a best-selling book, Panda Love, on the secret lives of pandas.

Currently based in Montana, Ami Vitale is a contract photographer with National Geographic magazine. She lectures for the National Geographic LIVE series and frequently gives workshops throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia.

Q & A

You are known for your humane, even spiritual, photography. Is it the subjects? Or your personality? Or both?

I don’t know if I am a spiritual person. I know that I don’t think of photography just as photography. It’s not about art for me. It’s about the connections with people or animals that I make—the process. Photography is powerful and that’s why I love it. Being behind the camera is where I got my strength. I was then able to set off into the world and focus on women in a lot of very conservative places. As a woman, I’m able to get into sometimes tense, difficult situations and make people feel comfortable. They open up to me and there’s a level of trust that happens pretty quickly.

The world is this magical place if you get out of the plane and away from the TV. Even in the darkest places I’ve traveled to there have been incredible stories. Our world is far more beautiful than we often imagine. And, as clichéd as it sounds, it’s a wonderful feeling when you can give people a voice.

National Geographic Image Collection Interview With Ami Vitale By Simon Worrall

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