– Ami Vitale, National Geographic photographer
© All pictures by Ami Vitale
“Climate change is no longer about just polar bears; it about every living thing. This is the only home we have and it belongs to all of us. I want everyone to experience and benefit from the diversity of life we have today in all its forms—from glaciers to deserts, to elephants to the tiniest of ants that inhabit the earth,” explains Nikon Ambassador and National Geographic magazine photographer Ami Vitale when we meet.
From Rwanda to Kashmir, Bhutan, Kenya and Gujarat, the photographer, who started her career documenting the most violent conflicts on earth, has travelled to more than 100 countries, bearing witness not only to violence and brutality, but also to surreal beauty and the enduring power of the human spirit.
Throughout the years, Ami has lived in mud huts and war zones, contracted malaria, and donned a panda suit—keeping true to her belief in the importance of “living the story”. When I ask her about her passion for photographing nature, she talks about the importance of looking at the world we live in “to get an idea of who we are as humans, living within this incredibly diverse ecosystem.”
“Nature reminds us that we are just a tiny part of an intricate web,” she explains. “I love that feeling of understanding that when we see ourselves as a part of the natural world, everything begins to make sense again. It’s humbling and inspiring.”
Currently based in Montana, Ami’s photographs have been commissioned by nearly every international publication and exhibited around the world in museums and galleries. Instyle Magazine named Vitale one of 50 Badass Women, a series celebrating women who show up, speak up and get things done. She appeared alongside a group of incredible women including Jane Goodall, Christiane Amanpour and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I’ve been on a mission to tell stories that show us a way forward and remind us all of how much we share, rather than simply emphasise our differences.”
Documenting our thriving planet
On a cold snowy day, in December 2009, Ami was in the Czech Republic shooting the powerful story of four of the world’s last northern white rhinos. “I had the privilege of following these gentle hulking creatures on their journey from the snowy Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic to the warm plains of Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, in a last-ditch effort to save the subspecies. It was believed that the air, water and food, not to mention room to roam, might stimulate them to breed—and the offspring would then be used to repopulate Africa,” writes Ami on her website. At the time, there were only eight Northern white rhinos alive on earth, and this was the last desperate effort to save the entire species from extinction. That day changed the course of her life. Moved by this meeting with these beautiful and powerful creatures, the photographer decided to shift her focus to today’s most compelling wildlife and environmental stories.
Less than 10 years later, Ami Vitale returned when Sudan, the last male northern white rhino died. “It was beautiful but also tragic and the most heartbreaking moment I’ve had to photograph,” she recalls. On March 17th, 2018, she received a call to hurry back to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya to say goodbye to Sudan. “When I arrived, he was surrounded by the people who loved him and protected him. What surprised me was how quiet it was. All I could hear was the rain falling, one bird chirping and the quiet, muffled sobs of his keepers. To watch the last of something die is something I hope never to experience again. His loss reminded me that living in a world without rhinos and elephants and other wildlife, we suffer more than the loss of ecosystem health. We suffer a loss of imagination, a loss of wonder, a loss of beautiful possibilities.”
Documenting the local heroes of climate action
“I’ve been on a mission to tell stories that show us a way forward and remind us all of how much we share, rather than simply emphasise our differences,” explains Ami, who acknowledges the importance of photography and film in creating awareness and understanding across cultures, communities and countries. “Photography is powerful. It transcends languages. It has become a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share. It can amplify others’ voices and has this instant ability to connect people.”
Pictures can also be a great means to inspire people to get involved in fighting climate change, and they can be an important reminder that what happens next is in our hands. “Stories shape who we are and become our reality. They have the capacity to allow us to reimagine a different future and show us that our choices are profound in their impact. Our destiny will be determined not necessarily by rising sea levels, but by our behaviour.”
Photo essays like the ones Ami works on can also show individuals who have, against all odds, found solutions. They shine a light on the “local heroes” of climate action. They allow us a glimpse into the lives of the people, on the other side of the earth, who are truly having an impact on their community and the planet.
Ami talks about her experience working with the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Kenya, an elephant sanctuary established in 2016 by indigenous Samburus and situated in the base of the Namunyak Wildlife conservancy. “What’s happening here at Reteti, without fanfare, is nothing less than the beginnings of a transformation in the way Samburus relate to wild animals they have long feared. This oasis where orphans grow up, learning to be wild so that one day they can rejoin their herds, is as much about the people as it is about elephants.” she writes in her article for National Geographic.
“The sentient giants are nature’s great engineers, turning brush and trees into grasslands, something both wildlife and the Samburu and their cattle value greatly,” explains the photographer. But 25 years ago this landscape was empty of wildlife. Elephants were decimated by ivory poachers, and the loss of pachyderms had a ripple effect on other animals. Armed criminal gangs of poachers also created a lot of insecurity for the communities living there. The Samburu people then created the first ever community-owned and run elephant sanctuary in all of Africa, becoming the elephants’ greatest protectors. “The people who run Reteti are out there every day, often in harsh and sometimes dangerous conditions, all in an effort to protect elephants, and reintroduce orphaned elephants back into the wild,” explains Ami who witnessed the beginning of a transformation in the way communities live side by side with wildlife they might have once feared. “As elephants and other wildlife thrive, the land is healing and so are the people. This is a story not just about wildlife. It’s really about us, our home, our future. It’s about how deeply connected we are to each other. It’s about communities and individuals prepared to change the world.”
This oasis where orphans grow up, learning to be wild so that one day they can rejoin their herds, is as much about people as it is about elephants. “Everywhere I go, I see people, often with very little, making huge impacts in their communities and the planet. I think it’s just as important to shed some light on those stories, where against all odds, individuals are making a difference. This will be what saves us all.”
“If we fail to act, we are essentially condemning future generations to eternal poverty.”
Awareness for a changing climate, all over the world
Needless to say, all of these experiences have influenced Ami’s work: “I’ve been working to cover underreported issues primarily about women, poverty, health and security for the past 20 years. I didn’t realise it when I began, but all of these issues are really about our resources and water in particular. Stories about the land are always stories about people. You cannot talk about one without the other. If recent storms and natural disasters tell us anything, it is that we are inextricably linked to the forces of nature.”
Today, Ami Vitale is using her worldwide recognition to raise awareness and funding to help empower women and girls in emerging nations around the world. Together with a collective of female scientists, journalists, writers, filmmakers and photographers, she was a founding member of Ripple Effect Images, an organisation that works with NGOs, governments, and corporate leaders to document and support projects that help women help their families, communities and the planet. “Climate change does impact all of us; no one is immune to it but it is women and girls in most of the developing world who bear the greatest burden as resources become scarcer,” she explains. Worldwide, women and girls spend collectively 200 million hours every single day collecting water. Climate change has only worsened that burden, and they must now search farther and farther afield for water and other resources. “This one task robs them of their time and potential,” continues Ami. Ripple Effect Images recognises that programs that give women the tools to affect change are some of the most effective, because women reinvest those resources and share them with others.
Describing herself as a very shy child whose parents were desperate to try to make her feel more comfortable in the world, Ami explains how she got her courage once she started to put herself behind the camera. The camera was taking the attention away from herself, and would allow her to focus on others, and to dive into situations she never would have had the courage to be in. Feeling like a super-woman with invisible powers, Ami spent her career immersing herself in those stories and she has been using her superpower ever since to amplify other people’s voices.
When I asked her about how much awareness exists for the climate crisis around the world, she answers wholeheartedly: “I can tell you from first-hand experience people are aware of and frightened by the impacts of climate change. The rural poor are already living on the margins of survival with little room for error and are acutely aware of nature’s response. There are billions on the planet who still do not have access to clean water. As droughts and flooding becoming more frequent and longer-lasting, it is detrimental to human beings across the world.” In her own experience, it’s not just the developing world that is feeling the impacts of climate change. “I spent time travelling through America to document our changing climate, as well as the impact the coal industry is having on the people whose lives are being supported by it, and at the same time they are being harmed.” In the United States, coal kills around 13,000 people annually, and over 23,000 in Europe. “If we fail to act, we are essentially condemning future generations to eternal poverty.”