To blend in, photographer Ami Vitale had to wear a panda suit before getting access to the pandas. (Photo courtesy of Ami Vitale)
Carnegie Mellon University

Finding Love: Ami Vitale on Documenting Pandas

The day is gray and foggy deep in the forest-covered hills surrounding the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Sichuan, China. The bamboo in these picturesque forests grows abundantly in a lush shade of green.

Look deep below the misty layers, and you can see a figure carrying photography gear in hand. That’s National Geographic photographer and Nikon ambassador Ami Vitale, known all over the world for her vibrant culture and wildlife photography. Pandas brought her to these misty forests — she was covering China’s efforts to save one of its national stars.

For the second week in a row, she climbs a mountain in the Wolong Nature Reserve where pandas are slowly being trained to be reintroduced into the wild. After a lot of waiting, something black and white emerges. It’s Ye Ye, the panda whose name symbolizes the friendship between China and Japan.

Ye Ye strikes a pose on the leafy ground. Click. Vitale got the perfect shot she had been waiting for.

The panda disappears, moments after it appeared.

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In the brief moments when giant panda Ye Ye was in front of Vitale, she got the perfect shot she had been working so hard for. (Photo courtesy of Ami Vitale)

***

Even if Vitale’s name doesn’t immediately ring a bell in your memory, her images — of wildlife, stunning and beautiful and cute, of people, in all their colorful cultural ways — probably will. Her brown curls frame a face radiant with compassion and love — for the people she meets along the way, for the wildlife she covers, for the planet at large.

This past June, she published her debut book “Panda Love” — a collection taking readers through what she saw through her lens documenting China’s effort to save pandas. In an interview with HS Insider, Vitale draws back the behind-the-scenes curtain on photographing one of the most recognizable animals in the world. Ultimately, in Sichuan, she finds much more than just the cuteness that we associate with pandas: she finds a deeper story of conservation, love and hope.

***

The journey to the publication of “Panda Love” started after she convinced National Geographic with a story pitch on the pandas. Vitale was given rare access to photograph the various components of the conservation program.

Although her assignment in Sichuan might be of envy to panda enthusiasts, it is much more than just snapping photos of adorable bears. In fact, she stated that the panda story was one of the most challenging she had done, and this is from someone who used to be a war-zone photographer and who had once contracted malaria while on assignment.  

For her, the biggest difficulty was simply getting access to the pandas and being sensitive to their biology. The assignment in Sichuan was a constant delicate balancing act between the needs of the photographer, the wishes of the keepers, and what is best for the pandas. Because they are so rare, “each panda is closely guarded and watched,” she recalled. Developing trust with locals directly involved in the conservation efforts proved to be crucial for getting the required access.

There’s also the irresistible cuteness factor. It’s hard not to fall in love with pandas’ ebony-circled eyes and patched fur and their teddy bear-ish demeanor. But Vitale understands that loving animals also means that one should treat wild animals as wild animals. She wants readers to understand that “if you love wildlife, you also have to understand that you need to love them without snuggles.” In other words, when interacting with wildlife, it’s best not to interfere with them.

Furthermore, although pandas may look snuggly, they are still bears. “[After] about 6 months old they have teeth and claws and can hurt you,” she said.

Yet another layer of challenge was finding a fresh story to tell about one of the most recognized animals today. “It is not that anyone hasn’t seen a picture of a panda,” she said. “ I wanted to take a story we think we already know and turn it on its head and surprise people.”  

***

Surprise people, she did.

Amongst the unflattering headlines that tend to dominate environment-related news in China and elsewhere, she managed to tell a panda story that contrasted with them like day and night.

While giant pandas are still endangered with fewer than 2,000 wild individuals, China has been diligent in not only breeding pandas but also training them to be released into the wild and protecting their habitat, which has been decimated by agriculture and development — and all of these efforts have begun bearing fruit. The panda population has been steadily increasing in recent years, and China is one of the few countries in the world where forest coverage has been growing.

Vitale captures this hope in two succinct sentences: “The pandas sent to the wild will have no lines of school children waiting to meet them, nor a fan page on Facebook. And as these bears trundle off into the wild, they take with them hope for their entire species.”

***

If this story is striking, knowing the history of the panda adds a layer that makes it even more noteworthy.

“[It’s] hard to imagine but this adorable animals adored by billions were once as mythical and elusive as Bigfoot,” she asserted. Perhaps because of their isolated location, Chinese paintings for millennia depicted other animals and bamboo, but never a panda. Only in the last century were they discovered — the first one was captured in 1927, and the first live individual was captured in 1936.

“[The Chinese] took an unknown animal, not particularly loved, in a densely populated country with poverty and turned it into not just a national symbol but also a spiritual symbol for the world”, Vitale said of the inspirational nature of the story.

***

As lovely the news is for pandas as a species, the moral of this story goes far beyond that. Vitale sees the panda story as part of a larger story about the interconnectedness of nature and humanity, which is the main takeaway from “Panda Love.”

For her, photography has made her realize the deep truth behind the words from a Conservation International campaign: “Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature” and that what happens on the planet always starts a ripple effect. “[T]he more I document people and their issues, I realize I’m documenting nature and the more I document nature, I realize I’m photographing people’s lives,” she said.

She hopes that starting with the symbol of the giant panda, people can be inspired to save all species, because every species has a role and losing one species affects every other species, including humans. People often call for finding our common humanity in times of widening political and cultural divisiveness, but her call for unity extends to both humanity and the species that coexist with us.

“[W]e are in this intricate web together”, she said.

People have the power to shape their environments and the entire planet, for better or worse, and this is precisely why it is our responsibility to protect nature.

There is so much that connects us all to one another, whether we understand it or not… [the] future of nature is the future of us,” she said.

***

More than anything, she believes that love provides the blueprint for forging a better path forward as a planet.

“We are at a turning point and the world is fragile and vulnerable,” she said. While that may sound foreboding, she wants us to understand that “the power of individuals to make a difference is real.” She sees it all the time, a common thread linking the many stories she has covered.    

“Love IS going to be what saves us all,” she maintains. “The first step in caring about our natural world is by falling in love.”

Love, after all, is what ultimately can drive us to make a difference. She aptly titled her book “Panda Love”, because the power of love is the essence of the story she found.  

***

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A keeper checks on a panda cub that is in training to be released into the wild. As the cubs are in training, human contact is minimized through a panda suit scented with panda urine. (Photo courtesy of Ami Vitale)

Sitting and observing one mother panda with her cub — which the mother had never let Vitale see in all those months — on her last day in Sichuan, Vitale reflected on what she had experienced and how much the panda had already found its way into a corner of her heart. How despite the stuffy panda suits scented with panda urine that she had to wear to minimize contact between humans and in-training-for-the-wild pandas, and the work required to gain the trust of very protective locals — she had found a story that would ultimately capture so many hearts. The driver taking her to the airport would arrive within ten minutes, and she knew that she would miss this little corner of the world.

Suddenly, the mother panda stood up, cub held gently in her mouth. The mother walked up a hill, right in front of where Vitale was sitting. The mother sat there for a moment, cradling her cub in a posture reminiscent of a human mother cradling her baby. The mother soon returned with the cub to her sleeping spot. Tears welled in Vitale’s eyes.

Through her storytelling, she floods the world with love. And in return, the world’s love floods right back, deep into her heart.

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