Renowned Photographer to Share Stories from a Career Spent Documenting the Extraordinary

"It's sometimes in the hardest places, where things seem so dark, that you meet the most extraordinary people," according to photographer Ami Vitale, whose talk is part of FVCC's speaker series

By Mike Kordenbrock
Kamara, an animal keeper at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, nuzzles a black rhino named Kilifi. Photo by Ami Vitale.

In order to capture the kinds of photos that impart a deep sense of meaning, Missoula-based photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker Ami Vitale has gone to extraordinary lengths that have put her in situations both disturbing and absurd.

She has been shot at, and nearly killed, in the course of a day’s work. She’s also dressed in a panda costume scented with panda urine and feces.

Those are the kinds of stories that people always ask to hear when they learn of Vitale’s profession, but telling them can send a message of the “photographer as hero,” which is a narrative she finds to be flawed.

“The truth is, the harder images, are really quiet images that take trust and commitment, and commitment to building relationships, so that people open up and share these really important moments that have meaning,” Vitale said. “And so these are not a series of beautiful images, these are a series of images that hopefully have a profound meaning, that make people care. And I don’t know if you can make people (care) but make people fall in love with something in a different way.”

A 16-year-old panda, YeYe, waits inside her enclosure at the Wolong Nature Reserve managed by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Sichuan province, China on Oct. 30, 2015. Photo by Ami Vitale

Vitale will speak about her work, and her worldview, on Nov. 14 at the Flathead Valley Community College Wachholz College Center as part of the college’s WCC Speaker Series presented by Changemaker.

A Nikon Ambassador and National Geographic photographer, Vitale’s work has taken her to over 100 countries, and earned her numerous accolades, including Photographer of the Year for the International Photographer of the Year prize. She’s won the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Reporting, has won numerous World Press Photo Awards, was featured on the National Geographic channel’s “Explorer” series as recently as this year, and was named by InStyle magazine as one of its 50 Badass Women.

Ami Vitale in the field. Photo by Bruno Calendini

She’s also a founder of the nonprofit Vital Impacts, which raises money to support grassroots conservation efforts, and to provide financial opportunities for environmentally focused storytelling about the natural world, with an emphasis on supporting local community storytelling.

Additionally, Vitale is a Conservation International fellow, and in that role is helping produce and curate photographs for the nonprofit’s storytelling efforts, including efforts to create a visual map of the world’s forests and other places that store irrecoverable carbon — meaning carbon that, if released through human activity and lost, could not be restored by 2050.

Vitale’s talk at FVCC will include some of the images she has produced over the course of her career, as well as short video clips, as she takes attendees along on the journey of how she found her passion, and shares insights into the life and experiences that her career has offered her.

“I will share the extraordinary stories of individuals living on the front lines of war, climate change and extinction, who refuse to let cataclysm define their future,” Vitale said. “As we embark on this mission to save nature, there are amazing people out there. Every problem — climate, destruction of forests, extinction — has amazing champions and their stories inspire us to take action.

Fupi, an orphaned giraffe, nuzzles Lekupania, a wildlife keeper at Namunyuk Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. Photo by Ami Vitale.

Early in her career, Vitale documented conflict, and one of her first major undertakings was covering the Second Intifada, a violent conflict between Israel and Palestine in the early 2000s. Eventually, she decided there were other stories she wanted to tell, and decided to move away from taking some of the extreme lengths that to that point had become a part of her job. Among the realizations that led her to shift her focus, was that the natural world was the backdrop to nearly every conflict story she covered, whether it be in the form of a scarcity of basic resources, the changing climate, or the loss of fertile lands.

Vitale’s talk at FVCC will include, among other topics, details about projects and initiatives that have become central to her career, including documenting the race to save the northern white rhino from extinction and telling the story of the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Kenya, which is the first community-owned and operated elephant sanctuary in Africa. The organization cares for elephants orphaned by poaching, human-wildlife conflict, and drought.

“I do think there is a power to photography, and I hope that some of these images allow people to experience even a tiny bit of these really beautiful experiences that I’ve been able to have,” Vitale said.

A beautiful experience, as she explained, can happen in the most unlikely places.

“It’s sometimes in the hardest places, where things seem so dark, that you meet the most extraordinary people, that give you so much hope, that remind you of the story of humanity, of human resilience, of who we really are as human beings.”

Ami Vitale’s talk at FVCC’s Wachholz College Center on Nov. 14 will start at 7:30 p.m. For more information, including to purchase tickets, go to wachholzcollegecenter.org.

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