Photo courtesy to Ami Vitale.
Carnegie Mellon University

National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale on visual storytelling

There is a classic saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Many of the most compelling stories in the media and elsewhere are told not just through paragraphs of text, but through the combined imagery of words and photos or videos. Looking at photos and other visual media often has a way of tugging at viewers’ heart-strings that reading text does not.

For National Geographic photographer and Nikon Ambassador Ami Vitale, photography and photojournalism are more than just a passion– they have been deeply woven into her life for decades. In an interview conducted over email, she discusses her journey and experiences as a photographer and her reflections on what it means to be successful at visual storytelling.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a prominent photojournalist, Vitale describes herself as “incredibly introverted” and “very shy.”

“I found that the camera became my passport to engaging with the world around me,” she reflects, on her beginnings with photography. She was increasingly drawn to the subject as she felt that it allowed her to “[amplify] the voices of others” and “[empower]” herself at the same time.

“[The camera] became this incredible tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures,  and countries; a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share,” Vitale says.

True to her passion, she willingly braved the dangers of a war zone to be a war photographer for almost a decade, shooting a gallery of photos on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her mother was led to believe that Vitale was doing tourism photography for various traveller magazines because Vitale didn’t want to worry her.

“[My mother] called me crying only years later after she finally understood what I had been up to,” Vitale recounts.

From these humble beginnings and after her stint in war photography, she has gone on to become a prominent photographer at National Geographic, with a focus on nature-related stories. Her more recent projects include one on Kenya’s endangered rhinos, one on China’s efforts to restore pandas to their natural habitat, and one on an elephant sanctuary in Kenya where human caretakers try to nurse young elephants found orphaned or otherwise isolated from its herd back to health.

To be in such a position, she says one of the most important attributes a photographer has to possess is patience and commitment, including a willingness to spend years to get the access necessary for going beyond the typical headlines and reporting on deeper and unique stories.

“The stories we tell are more than just one beautiful image,” she insists. Beyond aesthetics, she says the photographs must be meaningful, and thus take “tremendous time and patience.”

ken 6647 National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale on visual storytelling
Ami Vitale in a panda suit while shooting a story on China’s panda conservation efforts.

For approximately the past year, Vitale has been reporting on the aforementioned conservation efforts in northern Kenya geared toward its endangered large mammals. One of the things that strikes her about being immersed in nature is all the noise the animals make that most people would never expect.

“The elephants rumble, and when the leopards come by, the monkeys wildly screech and hoot,” she describes. For her, these natural settings are a place to find “joy and solace”, and she finds it a “[privilege]” to “walk where big predators still roam”.

“[Nature is] a place where we can look back at the tracks and perhaps help us figure out where to go,” she reflects.

Vitale is most proud of her efforts when she watches the positive impacts that storytelling can have. For her, it is “exciting” to see “[people]. . .getting engaged and visiting these conservancies[,] which then creates opportunities for the local communities protecting the wildlife.”

“I use photography to focus on what connects us,” she reflects, when asked to discuss what she would want to public to know about her field. She strongly believes in the power of photography to, in her words, “create change and remind us of the best of humanity and what we can achieve.”

Parallel to this aim, she strives to show that “we have more in common than we often realize” and that “stories of love, courage and those that inspire empathy exist.”

“We have become attune[d] to thinking that the things that give us joy and connect us, the things that all of you can identify with are not worth publishing and not worth showing,” she lamented. On the contrary, she wishes to put the spotlight of her camera on the things that unite us as human beings rather than only showcasing the things that divide us.

She feels that this is truer to her mission as a photojournalist, which is, as she puts it, “to give a broader vision of what the world looks like.”

For those who aspire to be photographers, she tells them that authenticity is one of the most important aspects in making compelling photographs of people– in other words, following her philosophy of “living the story” by building a relationship with and maintaining respect for the subject.

“Successful pictures of people almost never happen from a distance,” she says. Instead, she tells aspiring photographers that they “need to become a part of the moment.” She suggests that in order to do this, it is essential for photographers to connect with the subjects of their photos, whether it be a nod of acknowledgement, an explanation of their project, or a longer conversation.

“Don’t look at people as different or exotic,” she insists.

Throughout the interview, her passion for showing our common humanity shines through.

“Remember, we have more in common with each other than you might think. . . focus on the things that unite and bind us,” she concludes.

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