Travel Longer Magazine Talks With Ami Vitale

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Ami Vitale - Contributor for Travel Longer MagazineAmi Vitale’s journey as a photographer and filmmaker has taken her to 85 countries where she has witnessed civil unrest and violence, but also surreal beauty and the enduring power of the human spirit. Her photographs have been commissioned by nearly every important international publication including National Geographic, Newsweek, Time, New Yorker, Geo, Le Figaro, Paris Match and Smithsonian.

She has garnered prestigious awards including multiple prizes from World Press Photos, the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Reporting, and the Magazine Photographer of the Year award by the National Press Photographers Association and Photographer of the Year International. Now based in Montana, Vitale is a contract photographer with National Geographic magazine and is writing a book about the stories behind her images.


Photo by Ami Vitale. Girl on Dal Lake, Kashmir India© Ami Vitale — Kashmir, India

Below is an extract from Ami Vitale’s interview with Billy Taylor, Senior Editor for Travel Longer Magazine.


Ami Vitale is one of the busiest photographers I have had the privilege of talking with. I mean she just never stops!  Part of the reason for her nonstop workload, is that she is on a mission to tell stories of this planet that unite us and inspire us to care for it.

Many of the projects she works on, she has worked on for years.  She is not the sort of person to show up to a place or event, pull out her trusty camera and simply fire off a few dozen images and then leave.

Ami is a storyteller and a darn good one at that. She connects with people, and gets to know the real face of an issue, a culture, an event. Only then will she slowly, and with great respect, take the needed photographs. When you see her images, you can see the depth to them. There is a story in them, a history, a journey… And that is what makes the work of Ami Vitale in such high demand.

You can see why I was so excited to get the chance to ask Ami a few questions about her background, and her views on the responsibilities we as travelers, all have in promoting cultural awareness and using photography to highlight our similarities, not emphasize our differences.

Without further ado, I am so pleased to introduce this issue’s ‘Featured Photographer‘ — Ami Vitale.

So who is Ami Vitale? What is your background and what form of photography do you most connect with?   

I can point to two important moments in my life that influenced my photographic career.

My father died when I was 7 and as cliche and dark as this may sound, his death impacted me to make the most of every moment. I can remember the day very clearly, and realizing that life does not go on forever.  I was painfully shy as a child but always very interested in people. The camera was the perfect tool. It allowed me to engage with the world around me. It gave me a reason to explore and people liked having me around when I was making photographs. These experiences definitely influenced the kind of photography I like.

Years later, after first being an editor for news organizations like Associated Press, I quit to try my luck as a freelance documentary photographer. I moved to India and nearly quit in 2002 after violence erupted between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Gujarat. No one knows exactly how many were killed. I arrived in the beginning of the carnage. The city was burning, thousands of machete wielding men were massacring each other and it was probably one of the most horrific moments in my life.

People were painting the symbols of their religion on their front doors so the mobs would know who to kill and who to let live.  It was like a scene out of the bible. Firebombs were being thrown, people were forced out of the homes and burned alive and the police seemed incapable of controlling the mobs.

All that suffering still haunts me and I could not comprehend it as a human being. I wanted to quit journalism and run away from India forever.

What kept me there was the knowledge that it is in these moments, the most challenging ones, that you must not close your eyes and go home. I stayed and I searched for other kinds of stories. And I’m so glad I persisted because there are so many other stories that also deserve to be told.

Photo by Ami Vitale. India Communal Riots-Children© Ami Vitale — Ayodhya, India

What is it that drives you to do what you do?  

In the beginning,  it was merely a passport to meeting people and learning about other cultures but now its much more that that. I feel a responsibility to tell stories that are often out of the headlines and to tell them with the same integrity that they have been told to me.

What benefits do you see in traveling slower and spending more time getting to know a people/culture?

Whether you’ve been in this one year or ten years, it’s critical to commit to one story or issue or place. There are a million great photographers and the technology is there to make everybody feel like a great photographer. However, the challenge is to be consistently good and to be able to reveal more than everyone else on the subject you are working on.

I think many people mistake taking pictures of exotic and beautiful places as being committed — but it’s not enough just to travel and take pretty images. You have to go deep and show something original and unexpected, something that teaches and surprises and take the time to go deep.

I have spent 12 years working in India and last year, I was there during the Pushkar camel fair where I met Subita and her family, a nomadic group who were selling their camels.

I spent a couple of days with them. At no time were we alone, and even when before dawn broke, we huddled around a fire, at least a half dozen people were looking at her only through their lens. The only time any of them acknowledged Subita and I was to ask me a technical camera question, like, “what ISO would work best in the low light?”

Later, Subita would tell me how de-humanizing the impact of eager tourists and their cameras were on her. “Made her feel like an animal” is how she put it to me.  No one even said “namaste” or “hello” to her. Those who surrounded her were after only one thing – what they considered a great shot. It was a hunt, she was simply the prize.

The era of film had a lot to teach us photographers; about approaching people slowly, and the importance of building trust, and crafting a story even as you fire the shutter.  Limited by the number of shots, we waited to get deeper into the story before blowing our film.  And we were not defined as much by one amazing, accidental image, but rather the tapestry of a great and complex story we could illuminate.

If some of the people who surrounded Subita had taken the time to spend even a few hours with her, learning a bit more about her life, they would have had a story and not just an image.

There are of course huge advantages to using a  digital camera. It can help you tell a story better but the important thing to remember is that anyone can take a picture, but it takes a good storyteller to be a great photographer.  And that always takes time.

Photo by Ami Vitale© Ami Vitale

As a traveler and photographer, what role do you feel you can play in education or cultural awareness?

As a photographer I believe that we have a great responsibility, an obligation, to illuminate the things that unite us as human beings rather than simply emphasize our differences.  We can not afford to view the world through an optic of fear and hate because if we only tell stories through our own paradigm of values, we justify the existing divisions in our world.

I truly believe that change will never happen unless we have empathy for those who have a different viewpoint than our own. The way to common ground is by seeing ourselves in others.


To read the full interview, and to see more of Ami’s stirring images, download a copy of Travel Longer Magazine — The World’s Premier Extended Travel & Photography Magazine.


More of Ami’s Incredible Images:

Photo by Ami Vitale. Jelha Ram, a camel trader from Nagor, India© Ami Vitale — Nagor, India


Photo by Ami Vitale. Baoli at Amer, a water well in the city of Japiur in India© Ami Vitale — Japiur, India


Photo by Ami Viatale. Kashmir Woman Sufi Saint
© Ami Vitale — Kashmir Woman, Sufi Saint


Photo by Ami Viatale. BHUTAN:THE LAST SHANGRI LA© Ami Vitale — Trongsa Dzong, Bhutan