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Skidmore College

Behind the lens

December 15, 2017
Amy Vitale on location (Photos courtesy of Ami Vitale/National Geographic)
Vitale on location (Photos courtesy of Ami Vitale/National Geographic)

by Sanjna Selva '21

National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale recently made Skidmore her destination, to show slides and share anecdotes in a talk titled "Rhinos, Rickshaws and Revolutions." In her earlier career as a war correspondent, she realized she was covering only the most violent and sensationalized aspects of humanity. A near-death experience on assignment in Gaza sparked a fire within her to challenge the notion that the most powerful stories had to be grounded in death and suffering. She explained, "I had to ask myself, was I telling only one half of the story, which was incomplete at best and maybe even dishonest at worst?"

Vitale saw moments of profound beauty and hope embedded even in the most gruesome, bleak conditions. She began telling those stories, photographing everyday life in parts of the world that weren't always given due attention. Living among the Fulani people in rural Guinea-Bissau for half a year, she discovered simplicity and joy-and showed those other realities beyond the famine and war portrayed by the media.

In 2009, after shooting a story on one the world's last northern white rhinoceroses, Vitale shifted her focus to wildlife and environmental stories. "Nature is really the biggest story out there," she said. "All of my stories about nature and wildlife are really stories about people, and vice versa. I came to that understanding after years spent covering conflicts that were often about resources and the natural world. "

During her Skidmore talk, Vitale captivated the audience with images of giant pandas in China's Wolong Nature Reserve-pictures that brimmed with hope, of baby pandas taking their first steps and 2-year-olds being reintroduced into the wild. Vitale was a serene presence throughout the evening, despite battling a wave of jet lag: She had just flown in from Dubai, where she was on the judging panel at a prestigious photography competition. Her excitement was evident as she expressed her passion for her work and her social initiatives, such as wildlife conservation efforts at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Kenya.

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"Photography transcends language. It gives people a voice," she said. In her travels, she is often the only woman on the job, and she likes to use photography to tell the stories of women she interacts with around the world. She is a member of Ripple Effect Images, bringing together renowned female scientists, writers, photographers and filmmakers to create stories that shed light on the hardships faced by women in developing countries and on the programs that can help them.

Asked for advice to give aspiring photographers, she replied good-naturedly, "It's not all glamorous. One percent of my job is about taking photos. The rest is sheer hard work. The trick is to get access to places that no one else can get to, and the secret to this is to know your subject better than anyone else. You don't need to travel abroad. What you do need to do, however, is tell a story better than anyone else can, using your own unique perspective. If you find your own story and show complete and utter dedication to it, then you will find a way to carve out a successful career."

After her talk, Vitale joined a session of the English course "Tribe," taught by Barbara Black. Starting from the premise that "As humans, we long to belong; community is something we crave," Black says the course uses widely varied readings as it examines "nations, generations, homes, the politics of war" and other ways of belonging. With Vitale, the class engaged in discussion about what unites us all as individuals around the globe.

Vitale concluded, "The world is a beautiful place, and we need to celebrate the goodness. It's everywhere."

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