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. She has received recognition for her work from the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), among others. Ami is a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine. She is based in New Delhi, India.
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.
You are currently working on a project called “Ripple Effect”. Tell us about it.
I went back to school to study filmmaking in 2009, after my career was already in full swing. While there, I was offered a grant to do a film about the migration of people. I had been covering conflicts for quite a long time, so my natural first thought was that migration is caused by conflict. As I researched it more, I realized that the biggest migrations today are because of climate change. So I went off and did this film and it absolutely rocked my world. You hear about climate change but until you see it firsthand and how it’s impacting people’s lives, you don’t realize that this is one of the most important issues of our lifetime.
Around the same time, Annie Griffiths, another Nat Geo photographer, decided to start this organization called Ripple Effect Images. She asked me to be a part of it and I became one of the founding members. We are filmmakers, photographers, scientists, and writers like Barbara Kingsolver. We go out and look at issues primarily where women are being impacted the most by climate change. We then give these strong, visual stories to the NGOs working on these issues so they can raise awareness and money. Since we’ve started, they say that the tools we’ve given them have helped raise over one million dollars. Visual storytelling is so powerful.
National Geographic Image Collection Interview With Ami Vitale By Simon Worrall