“I feel a responsibility and deep commitment to tell important stories that are often out of the headlines.”
Ami Vitale (born in 1971) is a photojournalist and documentary photographer from the USA currently based in Montana, USA. She studied photography at University of North Carolina.
For Ami Vitale photography is an “incredible passport to engaging and changing the world”. Ami Vitale is a Nikon Ambassador, National Geographic contract photographer and on the board of Alexia Foundation, giving grants to talented young photojournalist and thus enabling them to tell their stories.
Interview with Ami Vitale
Ami, what was your first camera and photographic experience?
A Pentax K1000. First experience was photographing strangers around my neighborhood in high school.
Why did you become a photographer?
I was always a very shy person, but having a camera in my hands empowered me and allowed me to engage with the world around me. In the beginning, it became merely a passport to meet people and learn about other cultures.
Now it’s so much more that that. I feel a responsibility and deep commitment to tell important stories that are often out of the headlines.
What does photography mean to you?
“You must have the eye, the drive, intellect, ethics and maturity but willing to invest every bit of your life and soul to this.”
Photography is an incredible passport to engaging and changing the world. My advice to photographers is simple.
It’s all about sheer, hard work. This cannot be overemphasized. You must have the eye, the drive, intellect, ethics and maturity but willing to invest every bit of your life and soul to this.
You need patience and commitment and also realize that the photographing is an extremely small part of the job. The actual creative part is tiny. Most of the work is researching, writing, planning, and finding funding for long-term projects.
Which photographer has inspired you most and why?
Too many. Susan Meiselas for her courage in her own work and commitment to helping so many young photographers find their own voices. Sebastio Salgado is from another world. He is so far beyond most of us mere mortals and his work is meant to inspire all of us to care about the planet we share.
I love the work of these 12 young photographers from Iran and the Arab world: Jananne Al-Ani, Boushra Almutawakel, Gohar Dashti, Rana El Nemr, Lalla Essaydi, Shadi Ghadirian, Tanya Habjouqa, Rula Halawani, Nermine Hammam, Rania Matar, Shirin Neshat, and Newsha Tavakolian. See this exhibit if you can: “She Who Tells A Story”.
What’s your favorite quote about photography?
May not be specifically for photographers but its one of my favorites:
“Always go with the choice that scares you the most, because that’s the one that is going to require the most from you.”
How would you describe your photographic style and creative process?
I approach people quietly and with sensitivity. We can’t stick cameras in people’s faces immediately and expect them to open up. It takes time to listen and understand. It takes time to gain their trust.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic style and how did you achieve it?
“It’s extremely important for me to be sensitive to the people I’m photographing.”
I know this is not about me and this is not about “my style” or making beautiful images. It’s about telling stories and giving the people we photograph dignity and respect.
Of course I want the images to be beautiful, but it’s extremely important for me to be sensitive to the people I’m photographing, and to be true to my understanding of what the story is all about.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
The era of photographic film had a lot to teach us photographers; about approaching people slowly, 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.
There are of course huge advantages to using a digital camera. It can help us tell a story better, but the important thing to remember is that anyone can take a picture. It takes a good storyteller to be a great photographer. And that always takes time.
What qualities does a good photographer need?
Empathy, hard work, patience and imagination. Imagination is the ability to see beyond the surface and to see things other people don’t see right away.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?
It needs to appeal to my intellectual curiosity as well as my aesthetics. Meaning and intention is very important.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Always from reading and my own experiences about a particular subject or story.
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
All Nikon! Nikon D4 and D800 are my workhorse. I also use the Nikon Coolpix 7800. Lense are mainly the 24mm 1.8, 24-70mm, 80-400 is an amazing lens too!
What’s your favorite website on photography?
Too many! I love “The Guardian”, “Time Lightbox”, “New Yorker’s Photoblog”, NYT Lens blog, BJP’s website, many many more.
What book on photography would you recommend?
John Harrington’s “Best Business Practices For Photographers”, Second Edition.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a professional photographer?
“Success rarely comes instantaneously and for most of us, takes years and years of hard work, dedication and passion.”
My biggest challenge in the beginning (and even now) is figuring out how to pitch a story to editors. It is as important to be able to write a compelling proposal as it is to be a strong photographer.
Very often I will write proposals and they can be rejected initially. It takes a lot of patience and resilience to come back and pitch a story successfully after its been rejected. Success rarely comes instantaneously and for most of us, takes years and years of hard work, dedication and passion.