Ami Vitale Advocates for Mother Earth

Ami Vitale Advocates for Mother Earth

Ami Vitale has a remarkable affinity for life-changing events. A native of South Florida, Vitale was a self-described shy, gawky child who, like many young girls, possessed little confidence. The assessment of a grade school teacher, who told her she was not very good at English, stuck with her for years. “I just thought that I had no ability as a writer, or as a creative person,” she says. “I remember thinking I was going to become an engineer because I had almost perfect math scores on my SAT.”

Photographs © Ami Vitale

Introverted and fearful as a child, Vitale’s parents thought that dressing her up as a lion and putting her in front of a camera might somehow give her courage, but it was only when she picked up a camera herself that she got the courage to go out and engage with others.

Vitale attended high school outside Washington, D.C., where she discovered photography at age 14. “It was a profound moment for me, and an amazing opportunity,” she explains. “I got access to incredible teachers in a world that I knew nothing about, and they encouraged me to dream to live an extraordinary life. They showed me that the first step is always the hardest, but that it would create a chain reaction for every life decision I would make going forward.”

Using a Pentax K1000 borrowed from school, she learned to “get out of my shell and talk to people, and photograph people, in Washington, D.C.” Says Vitale, “My teachers pushed me out of my understanding of what I could do. It was difficult, but they saw something in me, and encouraged me to find the best version of myself. They opened my eyes, and allowed me to realize that the world contains so much beyond our own parameters that we often don’t understand.”

During high school, she volunteered at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, where her job was to make prints from the archive. She remembers being struck by the power of looking back into the history of this country. “That just further inspired me to engage with the world around me, and meet people,” she says. “I would walk around the city, and just talk to people and ask to take their portraits.”

Privilege and Poverty in North Carolina

Following high school, Vitale headed south to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I never thought of photography as a real career path, but I continued to take pictures, and engaged in the communities around me,” she says.

An early example of Vitale’s documentation of community life in and around Durham, North Carolina.

She became fascinated by Chapel Hill’s then status as having the highest number of PhDs per capita in the US, juxtaposed by rampant poverty and urban decay in nearby Durham. “I spent a lot of time in the inner city (what were then called ‘the projects’) getting to know families and learning about their joys and struggles,” she says.

Yet, contrary to her experiences in Washington, Vitale felt uncomfortable during her first year in North Carolina, finding it hard to adjust. Looking back now, she recalls being confused by the disparities and lack of connection between the communities.

She admits, “I felt like I was on the fringe of society in all the worlds that I was interacting with, both in the privileged community, and in the projects. I was trying to make sense of it all, to create relationships, and have a better understanding of this world and the divisions that exist just beneath the surface.”

Life Changing Encounters in Denmark and Prague

Deciding that she had to get out of what felt like a polarized environment, and inspired by the example of a childhood friend who was half Danish, Vitale won a grant to study in Denmark during her sophomore year. “It was like landing in another world,” she says. “It was very progressive. There were as many women running for political office as men, and there were men pushing prams down the street.”

Budapest, Hungary has long been renowned for its health spas and thermal springs. The ancient Roman settlement, Aquincum, located on the outskirts of the city, is the site of the very first hot mineral water bath complex.

This eye-opening cultural shift solidified her interest in history and international politics, and became central to her decision to study International Relations. “I was curious about the world, the divisions and conflicts, and why it is the way it is,” she explains.

While living in Denmark, Vitale took the opportunity to hitchhike through Europe. In spring 1990, she was on the Charles Bridge in Prague when a stranger stopped and asked if she spoke English. It was within a year of the Velvet Revolution and the stranger was from a brand-new English language school seeking a substitute teacher for the day. Vitale recounts, “He said, ‘you speak English, will you teach this class?’ And I jumped at the opportunity and replied, ‘Absolutely!’”

This chance encounter became a life-changing moment when she was invited back to teach during her summer break. She notes, “It was the most exciting time to be there, during the summer when the Soviet troops all left, and the poet President Vaclav Havel had just been elected. Everything was opening up, and there was this feeling of wonder and excitement about the future.”

Finding Stories in Her Own Backyard

Upon returning to North Carolina for her junior year, Vitale enrolled in a basic photography class with Professor Rich Beckman, which soon became another life-changing event that would alter her career trajectory.

“Rich Beckman was the person who got me on the path I’m on today,” says Vitale. “I just carried my camera around and was obsessed with taking pictures. All I did was document, document, document, and he pushed me to apply for grants and contests.”

Two images Vitale made as part of her student award from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. “I learned pretty quickly that if you listen and meet people; everybody has a story, and everyone wants to be heard,” she says.

Picking up on her earlier exploration of local communities, in 1993 Vitale applied for and received the John Hope Franklin Student Documentary Award from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, the first of many awards in her storied career. “That’s when I started documenting my backyard, in North Carolina,” she says. “It really got me into other communities I never would have ventured into. I was fascinated by the discrepancies of wealth and privilege on one street called Dairyland Road, where new million-dollar homes were being built next to old dairy farmers, and then, next to that, were people living in poverty, many with no indoor plumbing.” she says.

Vitale also ventured into the inner city of Durham. She recalls a woman standing to address her in a church where she spent a lot of time, saying, “I don’t know who you are, but I know there’s a lot of big men who are afraid to come into our community, and we just think it’s wonderful that you’re here.”

“It was a divided world,” Vitale explains, “but I learned pretty quickly that if you listen and meet people; everybody has a story, and everyone wants to be heard. That was my wake-up call. That’s when I started to realize how many people are marginalized in this world.”

With new opportunities on the horizon, Vitale did a sudden trajectory shift. “I went from this path of planning to get work with the Foreign Service, to being interested in journalism and the role of the journalist as a watchdog on society. I was confused by our world, but found photography and storytelling a way to make sense of it all.”

Learning from the Other Side of the Desk

Following her graduation from UNC, Vitale landed a job as a photo editor with the Associated Press (AP), in Washington and New York. It was 1993, before CNN and other news channels had really taken off, and breaking news was handled very differently than it is today.

Cité Soleil is an impoverished and densely populated area of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Described as one of the "worst slums of the western hemisphere" because of the notorious violence, the area was ruled by gangs until 2007, who roamed the streets and often terrorized the neighborhood. A Haitian-run team from the St. Luke Foundation, one of the only organizations able to work in such "forbidden" areas, is building new houses, and providing education and medical care for an area encompassing more than 1.5 million people.

“Working in those newsrooms, we were often reacting to the news,” Vitale reflects. “News would break, and my job was to follow and then respond to the unfolding events. We would parachute photographers in to cover the breaking news without looking at the deeper questions of why these things might be happening.”

This experience behind an editor’s desk would become valuable to Vitale once she was in the field working as a photographer. "It was only much later that I could understand what the experience working for AP taught me,” she explains. “I learned where the holes were, and where I could find my own path as a storyteller. It gave me an opportunity to go a little deeper into each story I covered, to reveal not just the ‘events’ but why they were happening. Also, having the contacts to newspapers and magazines allowed me to reach out as a freelancer when I had something of value.”

Return to The Czech Republic

Ever since she had spent the summer in Prague, Vitale had harbored a fantasy of going back. While she always kept her finger on the pulse, it took her a while to get there. She was entering her fourth year at AP when a friend called with news of an opening at a Czech business newspaper. “I immediately asked, ‘Can I apply?’” she recalls.

She got the job, and after settling into a predictable schedule of business and event shoots in the now democratic Czech Republic, she began to hear stories about a conflict brewing in Kosovo, 1,500 kilometers south. Some of her friends had made the trek to cover the brewing conflict, returning with dramatic stories. “I don’t know how to explain it,” says Vitale, “but something inside of me knew I had to go.”

Taking a two-week vacation from the newspaper, she traveled to the area, in November 1998, and started making pictures. “I wrote editors that I had met from being at AP, asking if anyone was interested in coverage from Kosovo,” she explains, “but many of them didn’t even know where it was at that time.”

Vitale spent a year covering the war in Kosovo, traveling back and forth to Prague, and spending a month at a time in the war zone. Here, an ethnic Albanian woman watches American troops patrol through her village near Kololec, Kosovo.

Just a few months later, the situation blew up overnight with the breakdown of the Rambouillet Peace Talks. “I got four phone calls that night, because all the editors I had written to didn’t have correspondents there,” Vitale explains. “They’re like, ‘can you go, tomorrow?’”

After a moment of panic, she talked herself into taking the leap. “It was this moment when I went from being a relatively amateur photographer, working for a business newspaper, and overnight becoming a war correspondent without really meaning to,” she says. When asked if she would recommend this type of instant immersion to others, Vitale’s response is a resolute, “No, never.”

Several factors contributed to her success, and helped keep her safe during this first wartime encounter. The connections and background she had gathered during her preliminary two-week visit helped get her going, and her past knowledge from behind the desk at AP allowed her to understand what editors needed. She also had the advantage of arriving in Kosovo before the pack. “Frankly, once the pack arrives, all the prices shoot up,” she explains. “That makes it unaffordable for freelancers, because everything becomes prohibitively expensive.”

Most importantly, she was traveling with experienced photojournalists who showed her the ropes. Says Vitale, “I wasn’t completely green jumping into a war zone, which I see a lot of people doing. Frankly, that’s not only dangerous for yourself, but it endangers the people you’re working with.”

War Stories

Before long, Vitale began to equate telling powerful stories with covering conflict. “I thought the stories driven by grief and people’s suffering were the most powerful stories to tell,” she explains. “So, I set down this path of covering conflict after conflict, but I also wanted to cover the conflicts that had been forgotten or ignored, and not covered in mainstream media.”

In October 2000, Vitale was sent to cover the Second Intifada in Israel. Guns are still rattling in the West Bank town of Ramallah as the two sides grope to find a solution to the fighting.

The umbrella of conflict became her specialty, ranging from headline news to in-depth stories about life and resilience in unstable countries torn apart by war. From Kosovo, she went to Angola, and then to the second Intifada in Gaza and Israel. In 2000, she received an Alexia Foundation grant to document a small village in the war-ravaged West African nation of Guinea Bissau. “I remember thinking I was going to stay for two weeks,” she says. But once I got there, I came to realize that it takes time to truly understand one another, and tell each other’s stories, and that even six months was just scratching the surface. To truly understand a story, you need to be there, you need to speak the language, you need to live it.”

In 2001, she settled in Kashmir, a disputed region bordering India and Pakistan. But rather than immersing herself in the frontlines of conflict, her primary focus was exploring life behind the scenes. “I spent a lot of time with women and inside homes, and I think a lot of the work shows their suffering,” Vitale explained in a story for the PBS series Frontline. “I felt that they needed their voices amplified, because no one was sharing their stories. They quietly endured their suffering.”

Relatives mourn during the funeral of a woman killed during an attack on a leading politician in the northern Kashmir town of Mirhama. At least 11 people were killed, and a second abortive bid was made to assassinate a leading female politician, just days before a crucial second round of polls in the strife-torn northern Indian state of Jammu-Kashmir.

As Vitale wrote on her blog, “It took time to understand the motivations of a people, and the beauty of their land and culture. It also left scars after living there for more than four years, documenting the brutality of humanity, and being personally affected by the senseless deaths of close friends and innocent strangers.”

She uses the phrase “tunnel vision” to describe a condition of becoming “so obsessed with whatever it is that we’re working on that we forget to turn around. I realized that I was on a treadmill,” she concedes. “By only focusing on the most sensationalistic aspects of humanity, all I was doing was further polarizing people; it wasn’t really contributing to understanding.”

Faced with this realization and suffering with PTSD, she decided to take a break from work to question the path she was on, and figure out some next steps.

Discovering Nature and the Last Northern White Rhino

After documenting stories of war for almost a decade, Vitale felt as if she had “gone down this rabbit hole, with no way of getting out. It was hard at the time,” she says, “because when you’re covering conflict after conflict you can become a little adrenaline junkie. You start feeling bad if you’re missing something. All these events were happening around the world, and I felt I needed to be there.”

Children play at the Lava Lake farm in Hailey, Idaho, while their parents herd sheep to high-mountain grazing grounds for the summer. Vitale photographed at Lava Lake Farm for the Nature Conservancy’s Design for a Living World project.

It was exactly at this juncture that another life-changing opportunity landed in her lap, with a phone call from a former colleague. He was working on a book project and traveling exhibition for the Nature Conservancy and had been asked if he knew any photographers.

“He recommended me, even though I had no experience photographing nature,” Vitale says. “He called me up and asked, ‘What are you doing for the next six to nine months?’ And I said, ‘Nothing, and I’m not available.’ He said, ‘Wait, wait, you’ll want to hear this, hear me out.’ And then he explained the project, which was to go around the world photographing trees and nature. Immediately, I replied, ‘Yes, I can do that.’ I felt it was a gift from the Universe,” she says.

Vitale soon set out on a multi-nation commission for a 200-page book, and a museum exhibition entitled “Design for A Living World.” Documenting local people and their relationship to nature in far-flung locations, including the island of Pohnpei, in Micronesia, the Guarayo Indigenous Lands, in Bolivia, Mexico’s Maya Forest, Idaho’s Lava Lake Ranch, and the Upper St. John River, in Maine, her photographs were central to telling the story of how sustainable materials were used by designers to create new objects that connected real people and places.

“That chance for reflection, to look at the natural world, helped me put all the pieces together,” Vitale says of this project. “I realized that all the conflicts I had been covering were ultimately about our resources. That the biggest story, which I had been missing, was our natural world and what we’re doing to it. It was one of the most transformative moments in my career.”

In December 2009, the Lewa Conservancy in Kenya airlifted the last four breeding-age Northern White Rhinos from Prague’s Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic to live “freely” at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, 4,000 miles away. Vitale tapped all her resources to find a way to cover the story.

It was while working on this commission that Vitale learned of the DVur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic, which was planning to transport four of the last Northern White Rhinos to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, to save the species through breeding. She pitched this story to every editor she knew, but it got rejected across the board.

“I mustered up the courage to write them all back and ask, ‘Why isn’t this a good story for you?’ They responded with, ‘It’s a great story, but it would only be good for radio, it’s not visual enough.’ That’s when I learned that, in writing pitches, it’s important to explain what the story will look like,” she points out.

After spelling out the story in complete detail, explaining the visuals she envisioned capturing, and the urgency of getting the story out, she cobbled together enough money to proceed. Vitale adds, “Also, because I could shoot both stills and video, I didn’t have to ask for all the money from one source. I could offer different things to different clients. I was able to pitch a diverse skill set, which set me apart and allowed me to finance the whole trip.”

From Photographer to Filmmaker

In 2009, Vitale decided to return school and pursue a Master’s degree in filmmaking. It had been 16 years since she graduated from UNC, and her former professor, Rich Beckman, was now the Knight Chair of Visual Journalism at the University of Miami. “He had changed my life earlier, and he encouraged me to get a graduate degree there,” she says.

For a long time, Vitale had been scared to learn video, noting, “It just seemed too overwhelming.” That was before Nikon asked her to travel to India and create a video promoting the soon to be released D300S DSLR. “I told a little white lie, and said, ‘Yes, I shoot video,’ and I jumped in with both feet, not knowing anything about it,” she admits.

As sun sets at the world’s largest camel fair in Pushkar, India, Jelha Ram, a camel trader from Nagor, India, looks at the vast offerings of animals on display. Thousands of camels and traders come to the annual event, which some say has been going on for centuries.

On her 28-hour flight to India, Vitale pored over the camera’s instruction manual to learn the controls. “I was terrified,” she says, “thinking I had just made the biggest mistake of my life.” But once in the field, she was hooked. “I thought, wait a minute, this I need to learn. This is a game changer.”

Reflecting on these fears today, Vitale is particularly insightful. “Life is so much about seeing when there’s an opportunity, and not talking yourself out of it because of fear of failure,” she says. “We’re so afraid of failing, and guess what, I have failed so many times—fallen flat on my face, made the biggest mistakes of my life, come back with nothing—but you just have to keep going, and understand you’re not going to do everything perfectly the first time.”

In the long run, she discovered that embracing video made her a better, more thoughtful storyteller. “It’s so different than shooting still images,” she says. With stills, you have much more flexibility to wander around and let the story find you, but video requires you to be much more thoughtful in planning things out. You’ve got to try and script things a bit. This made me think about all the people I need to interview, and it made me a better listener. It also me realize how important it is to continue pushing yourself to learn new skills, and to mature in the way you tell stories. I think it helped me evolve into a much stronger storyteller.”

Vitale and Nikon in the Field

Vitale has been a dedicated Nikon shooter since purchasing her first Nikon, an FM2, after high school. Once her photos began winning awards in the early 2000s, Nikon began contacting her for interviews about her work. In 2009, they asked Vitale to try out the video capabilities of the Nikon D300s in India, which resulted in her first short film, Mirages.

Subita Devi, 13, prepares tea at the Pushkar Camel Mela, the world's largest annual cattle fair, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Every year thousands of camel herders from the semi-nomadic Rabari tribe travel for two to three weeks across 500 kilometers, to set up camp in the desert dunes near Pushkar and sell their livestock. Devi, a gypsy, travels for most of the year to various festivals throughout Rajasthan.

“Nikon has pushed me quite a bit in asking me to do these jobs, and whether it’s shooting video, learning VR, or working with their lighting systems, the opportunity to get out and use the tools that are available has changed my life,” she says.

She is earnest in her belief that other photographers should also take the plunge to learn new tools, explaining, “I’ve definitely evolved as a photographer and filmmaker because I’ve embraced technology in ways that I was really scared to in the beginning. It overwhelmed me, and I never considered myself technical. Some of my colleagues are so gifted in working with technology, but I never thought of myself that way,” she adds. “Yet I now realize it’s not that complicated. So, I’ve definitely gotten more adventurous and brave in trying different things.”

A Nikon Ambassador since 2013, Vitale’s camera of choice today is the Nikon Z7 mirrorless. “I just love it,” she says, “and it’s easy on my back.” But most important for her work with wildlife is the Z7’s quiet mode when shooting stills. “This has been a game changer when working with traumatized elephants. The metallic sound of the shutter on my other cameras scared them because it reminded them of guns,” she says. “When shooting with the Z7, the matriarch of this herd of orphaned elephants fully accepted me as part of the family. The other cameras had scared her, but now she’s completely comfortable with me being there.”

Five-month-old Nadasoit loves to lead the herd to the mud bath at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. The coating of soil helps protect sensitive elephant skin, acting as sunscreen and insect repellent. Nadasoit was rescued from a hand-dug well, and brought to Reteti by helicopter. Before Reteti, orphaned elephants would be transported 240 miles away, to Kenya's only orphanage near Nairobi. From there, if successfully rehabilitated, the youngster would be released into Tsavo National Park with no hope of finding its original herd in the north. But now, Reteti returns elephant orphans to their home ground, where they might reconnect with their relatives.

Depending on the job, Vitale also works with the Nikon D850 for filmmaking, paired with Nikon’s AF-S NIKKOR 14 – 24mm f/2.8G ED lens. “It’s really fast, and whether it’s people or animals, I like to be super close, so I bring back the most intimate story.

As a journalist, Vitale has to react to changing situations, so she generally prefers working with zooms—such as her go-to AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR lens—over primes. However, she does use the AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.4G ED lens when filming video with her D850 and a Zhiyun-Tech WEEBILL LAB Handheld Stabilizer.

Since many of her travels bring her to remote, faraway lands, Vitale travels as lightly as possible. “I have two cameras, and a few lenses in my backpack,” she says. “If I’m doing video, then I carry the tripod and gimbal.”

A Hindu pilgrim poses at a shrine at Trimbakeshwar during the month-long Kumbh Mela, in India. Kumbh Mela, a famous Hindu festival, is expected to bring more than three million pilgrims and foreign tourists.

Her packing needs vary greatly, so Vitale switches between several different backpacks. One of her current favorites is ThinkTank's MindShift Gear Backlight 18L Backpack. “But I also use an F-stop backpack,” she says. “It just depends what I’m doing. I like to have a little bit of choice.”

Vitale now shoots video on every assignment, so a sturdy tripod is a must to stabilize her gear. “I have two tripods for different things,” she says, “a Manfrotto MT055XPRO3 tripod kit, and the Sachtler Ace XL Tripod system.”

Another essential component for video is great sound and, for that, she counts on RØDE mics. She says, “I carry the RØDE VideoMic Pro Plus On-Camera Shotgun Microphone for general use, but I also have the RØDELink Filmmaker Kit Digital Camera-Mount Wireless Omni Lavalier Microphone System for interviews. It plugs right into my camera, so I don’t have to use a modifier and make a separate audio file. It’s really light, and it has perfect, clean sound,”

To keep the focus on her subjects and minimize background distractions in her video footage, fellow Nikon Ambassador Corey Rich suggested that she carry a 3-stop polarizing filter to help limit depth of field. While this doesn’t work on her super-wide lens, she often uses polarizers with her 24mm and 24-70mm lenses. “Getting super-shallow depth of field makes such a difference,” she affirms.

While Vitale prefers to shoot in natural light, some assignments require additional lighting, especially for stills. “I carry the Elinchrome ELB 500 TTL Dual To Go Kit in my carry-on bag,” she says. I also use the Nikon SB-700 Speedlite system. I love those because they’re so light.”

Creating a Community Effort

Working alone in the field, for the most part, Vitale has had to adapt her working methods based on what she can carry. She notes, “Before, it wasn’t physically possible for me to carry all that gear alone. Now everything is so compact. I can carry an extra lighting system, and then I like to ask people, often children from the communities I’m working in, to help me with my gear. It makes them feel valued and a part of the story,” she says. “One person holds my microphone, somebody else holds the lights, and they all love to hold the reflector. It means I don’t have to take a big crew,” she adds, “because that can make people feel like they’re being gazed upon by outsiders. And I love working with children because it creates trust with the adults, who see that I enjoy being with their children. It’s just a wonderful way to engage.”

Vitale loves interacting with children, including this group of Sri Lankan girls, many orphaned in a conflict lasting more than 26 years. During an outing from their orphanage, they go swimming in the ocean for the first time near the village of Thottaweli.

While Vitale credits filmmaking with making her a better storyteller, her process is not without considerable challenges. “It’s tricky,” she admits. “The research process is a lot more in depth. I have to write, and do extensive planning of logistics, and scripting. I also have to think about who I need to interview, and what I should be asking.”

But perhaps Vitale’s biggest challenge is managing all the data once the shoot is done. “It’s hard to do it all yourself,” she notes. “I get overwhelmed downloading massive amounts of data in the field, because we’re shooting huge files now, and I have to back everything up three times. It’s time consuming and exhausting after a 16-hour day of shooting,” she admits.

Given such demands, Vitale depends on G-Technology 1TB R-Series USB 3.1 Type-C mobile SSD external drives in the field for maximum efficiency and speed, while her home setup features a Synology DiskStation DS918+ 4-Bay NAS Enclosure, and Seagate 4TB IronWolf 5900 rpm SATA III 3.5" Internal NAS HDD hard drives. “This system is amazing,” she says, “because I can get into my hard drive and find images from anywhere on the planet when an editor needs something.”

Investing in Stories and Managing Rejection

From the very beginnings of her career, Vitale has made a considerable investment in the stories she tells. “Today, most of my time is spent thinking, not just about one story, but about how I can have an impact in each place I’m working,” she says. “My feeling is that I’m not just a journalist anymore, I spend so much time doing advocacy campaigns, and trying to figure out how to engage new audiences. I want to have as much of an impact as I can.”

A group of Samburu warriors touch an orphaned rhino for the first time ever at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, in Kenya. With only about 5,500 black rhinos left in the world, every rhino life is so precious that conservationists such as Lewa must work hard to ensure each individual’s survival.

With new projects, her first step is often to invest in the story herself “to create enough material to show people what you’re imagining, because they don’t have the same level of insight that you do. This always takes time,” she explains, “because gaining access involves earning trust, and that takes time and patience.”

She has often done Kickstarter campaigns and other forms of fundraising to pay for her trips, and then offered her subjects use of the imagery to build trust and demonstrate that she’s not just there to take. And, although she has amassed an extensive picture archive over the years, she estimates that 90 percent of her life is spent doing research, pitching stories, and applying for grants. “But 50 percent of that time, nothing comes of it,” she admits. “However, I’m not just working on one thing, I have a lot of irons in the fire. I’m always thinking about all these other projects, because I don’t know what’s going to stick and what’s not.”

She tells of the importance of being able to let go of this rejection, knowing that you tried and did your best, but it doesn’t always work out. “The thing I’ve learned is, you will be rejected over and over again, but don’t give up. Don’t let other people decide that it’s not a story. Look at yourself and figure out what you did wrong in making that pitch.”

When pitching stories and writing grants, she finds it crucial to address three key components:

  1. Visualize for the audience what it is you’re going to photograph. Explain what the visuals will look like, spell that out. Editors often haven’t been to the place you are working, and they can’t know what you will see.
  2. Express the sense of urgency. Why now, why is it relevant to do the story today, and not next year, or at some point in the future?
  3. Why should anybody care? Are there connections that can be made beyond a local level, or an impact to humanity at large that you can explain?

One-year-old Giant panda cub Na Na explores the forest at Wolong China Conservation & Research Center for the Giant Panda, in Sichuan Province, China. Although pandas spend most of their days eating and sleeping and their diets do not provide them with much energy, they are playful and love to climb trees.

Vitale’s story ideas are largely self-generated, rather than assigned by a client. In most cases, the ones that see the light are the result of a continued effort of refinement after an initial rejection. “That happened with the panda project,” she says.

In 2013, she was part of a film crew documenting the efforts to breed pandas and reintroduce them to the wild, at China’s Wolong National Nature Reserve. She secured access for an extended story on this subject, but her first pitch to National Geographic was rejected because of a panda story the magazine had published eight years earlier. She went back, asking them to reconsider, and then invested in some of the initial images herself. “That’s basically how a lot of stories go,” says Vitale. “For whatever reason, they don’t see it, or it’s been done before, and you have to show your client how your story will be unique.”

The magazine bought in, and after three years and numerous trips to photograph in China, Vitale’s story was published in National Geographic’s August 2016 issue. In 2018, she made a VR film on pandas for National Geographic, and in June 2018, the images from this project were featured in her first book, Panda Love: The Secret Lives of Pandas.

Advocating for Mother Earth

Vitale’s Northern White Rhino story marked a huge turning point in her career, and she has since dedicated much of her time to advocating for the plight of endangered wildlife and raising awareness about the fate of our planet.

“I started realizing how truly connected everything is,” she points out. “Every person on this planet, and every choice we make has an impact on someone else. You start to see how we live in this beautiful, intricate web.”

A caretaker in a panda suit cleans the enclosure of a Giant panda being trained for release into the wild at the Wolong Nature Reserve, managed by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda.

In her view, the smallest of efforts can make a substantial impact. “Once you become aware, you realize all the things you can do as an individual,” she says. “Our consumer choices are like votes, and little things matter: Like carrying a water bottle so you don’t have to use plastic. Even choosing where you go on holiday can make a difference, by giving communities a livelihood, which enables them to protect wildlife and nature. Getting engaged matters. Using our voices matter,” she asserts. “There is no reason for us not to act right now. If we don’t do it, future generations will look back and wonder why we trashed this planet. The price to protect what is left is as cheap as it’s ever going to get.”

While her photos and films are undeniably effective in raising awareness, Vitale’s efforts at engagement reached new heights in her 2018 fundraising campaign for Kenya’s Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, when she partnered with the musician Dave Matthews. Not only did this campaign help fund the sanctuary’s operating costs, it generated a tremendous audience of new donors, who would not have otherwise known about the organization and its lifesaving mission.

“It was a lot of work,” she says. “That was all I worked on for a year or more, but it was life changing, and it made me hopeful for the planet, and for humanity. Once you have found your calling, it becomes harder to sit on the sidelines. You become hungrier for the things that inspire you. Amazing things happen when you start following your instincts.”

Vitale recently completed another campaign to benefit the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, East Africa’s largest black rhino sanctuary, and home to the last two northern white rhinos on earth. For a $10 donation people were able to support a worthy cause and get a stake in the trip of a lifetime. “Everything is paid for,” says Vitale, “Airfare, lodging for five nights, plus a Nikon Z6 camera and 24x70mm f/4 lens, and a personal workshop with me, for the winner and a guest. I’m going back to Kenya with the winners in October to give a private workshop and safari,” she adds.

A traffic jam at a conservancy in Kenya. The rhinos are walking with Kamara, one of the inspiring rangers who is currently hand raising three baby rhinos. Kamara spends 12 hours daily watching over his vulnerable charges, sometimes in pouring rain. He calls them his children, and once had to fend off a lion who was eyeing one of them. In his 10 years at the conservancy, Kamara has raised ten baby rhinos, four cheetahs, three giraffes, three warthogs, two wild buffaloes, one lion, and serval cats. This is just one of many stories showing the incredible efforts of Kenyans, who work so hard to protect their wildlife.

Always on the go, she is currently hard at work on a host of projects, from raising awareness about habitat loss, to empowering women in different communities, to an ongoing fundraiser with her fine art prints, where 100 percent of sales go back to the communities she works with in northern Kenya. “Once I start working on a project I never stop,” she admits. “I continue with each project, and with giving talks to inspire different communities to engage in their own ways. There’s so much we can all be doing, and now is the time to do it,” Vitale sums up. “That’s my take away message; all of us can be engaged. You don’t have to have a lot of power and wealth to make a difference. Don’t sit this one out. If more people are involved, then, absolutely, we’ll come up with solutions.”

To catch up with Vitale and learn about her latest projects, view more of her photographs, and to access a resource page with a regularly updated list of relevant grants, contests, and opportunities for aspiring photographers, visit her Website.


For more wildlife-related news and tips, be sure to check out the rest of Wildlife Week on B&H Explora!


Thanks for your comment James H., as well as for your interest in long form storytelling. Much appreciated!!!

A terrific, in-depth piece about a wonderful photographer who is truly dedicated to important causes and to the subjects of her stories. Thanks, B&H.