Ami Vitale is the founder and Executive Director of Vital Impacts, a nonprofit whose mission is to support grassroots organizations that protect people, wildlife, and habitats as well as to support and mentor the next generation of environmental storytellers. Ami is an award-winning National Geographic photographer, filmmaker, writer, and speaker, as well as an ambassador for Nikon. Her travels have taken her to over 100 countries. Today, her work focuses on some of our most compelling nature and environmental stories.
Ami has documented the reintroduction of giant pandas into the wild, human-wildlife conflict and efforts to protect species around the world. For the past thirteen years, she has been documenting the tragic story of the last northern white rhinos and efforts to save them from extinction over the past 13 years. Today there are only two alive.
Her iconic image of Sudan, the last male white rhino who passed away in 2018, was named by National Geographic as one of the most important images of the last century. Readers voted it the most impactful image of the last decade. For many years I have admired Ami Vitale’s tireless work for the vulnerable people and animals of the earth.
I have now had the opportunity to interview her.
The camera gives me strength and courage
Ami can you tell us how it all started?
As a young woman, I was painfully shy, awkward, and introverted. The first time I picked up a camera, everything changed. Looking through the viewfinder, I found a world full of wonder. I got courage from being behind the camera. Focusing on others, took the attention away from myself and gave me courage. The camera helped me realize that being an introvert wasn’t a weakness — it actually gave me the ability to listen, to really hear other people’s stories. It became my passport to engage with the world around me.
The world we share
What does it look like today, what is it that drives you?
Today, my motivation is very different from when I began. Photography and storytelling are much more than a tool for my own self-confidence. They are a tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures, communities, and countries; a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share.
In the beginning, I jumped right in to tell stories about humanity. Newspapers and magazine editors would send me to cover wars and I was asked to focus on the horrors of the world. After a decade, I realized a deep truth; I had been telling stories about people and the human condition but the backdrop to each of these stories was the natural world.
In some cases, it was the lack of basic resources such as water. In others, it was the changing climate and the loss of fertile lands, but in every case, it was the demands placed on our ecosystem that drove conflict and human suffering. Today, my work is not just about people. It’s not just about wildlife either. It’s about how the fates of both humans and wildlife are intertwined and how small and deeply connected our world is.
Ami Vitale Vital impacts
I started Vital Impacts a little more than a year ago and am honored to be collaborating and supporting some of the most inspiring people on the planet, who share a commitment to protecting the natural world. Our women-led organization is proud to support those protecting endangered habitats and foster the next generation of environmental storytellers. We do that by gathering the world’s finest photographers and use powerful storytelling images to support organizations working to protect endangered habitats.
By bringing art and the beauty of this world into people’s lives, it can inspire us to reimagine our relationship with nature and to each other. Sharing these stories of both human and nature’s resilience can inspire us to become more actively engaged in protecting the future of this planet and the life that we coexist with.
We also believe there’s a strong connection between visual imagery and empathy; when we see something, it helps us to connect our brains and hearts to feel love and compassion for other living beings. While science and research are critical to understanding the planet and all the life we coexist with, photography can often reach people in other profound ways. As photographers we have a huge opportunity to inform and influence change, but pressing the shutter is just the start. For an image to have significance, it needs to tell a story and reach people.
We feel a sense of urgency in our mission and want to empower more people to make a difference, using photography as the onramp to get engaged.
This year’s initiative will support the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots and Shoots program and Vital Impact’s environmental photography mentorship and grant program. We just announced two $20,000 environmental photography scholarships and a mentorship program for 50 honorees that supports in-depth environmental documentary journalists in connection with this print sale.
Every where I go, I see people, often with very little, making huge impacts in their communities and for the planet. I think it’s important to shed some light on those stories of hope, where against all odds, individuals are making a difference. These stories about wildlife and our environment are really about all of us, our HOME, our future.
One of our collaborators is Nick Brandt, said, “Somewhere out there, there could be a young photographic equivalent of Greta Thunberg, someone who captures people’s imaginations on a global scale… By buying these photographs, you are helping fund potentially great new visual creators.”
Our hope is to raise $1 million every year to support those people who serve and protect endangered habitats. As the new year approaches, please consider buying a unique print that holds a powerful story or making a donation.
The Panda Project
Can you tell us about the panda project?
The Panda project is a project that I began by making trips to China over the course of three years. I spent time researching and learning everything I could possibly find about pandas. Right now, there are fewer than 2,000 Giant Pandas in the wild. Their breeding secrets have long resisted the efforts of zoos, and the mountainous bamboo forests they call home have been decimated by development and agriculture. But in a region where bad environmental news is common, the future of the Giant Panda might prove to be the exception. Over thirty years, researchers from the reserve have been working on breeding and releasing pandas, augmenting existing populations and protecting their habitat.
And they’re finally having success. They are taking captive born pandas and releasing them back into the wild. They are investing billions into creating more habitat and connecting corridors. This is possibly the biggest reforestation program happening on the planet right now. It’s one of the few countries where forest coverage is growing.
The pandas sent to the wild will have no lines of school children waiting to meet them, nor a fan page on Facebook. And as these bears trundle off into the wild, they take with them hope for their entire species. The slow and steady incline in the population of Giant Pandas are a testament to the perseverance and efforts of Chinese scientists and conservationists. China may be on its way to successfully saving its most famous ambassador and in the process put the wild back into an icon.
Surprisingly, this was one of the most challenging stories I’ve worked on. The biggest challenge was getting access to one of the world’s most endangered animals. This is a very rare, finicky endangered animal with teeth and claws. With only a few thousand in the world, the Chinese treat it as a national symbol, and each panda is closely guarded and watched. They are multi–million dollar bears that everyone treats with kid gloves, and they are highly vulnerable. Getting close, without interfering with their biology and conservation, and in a way that is acceptable to its very protective minders, was challenging. It was not just about getting access and gaining local trust, but also about being able to work with wild animals.
Vital Impacts is raising money to support grassroots organizations that are protecting vulnerable wildlife, habitat and the people supporting them. Ami Vitale has created a great way for people to donate to great causes and get something back at the same time. And, the photographers benefit as well. It gives them a chance to use that money to do the next project. Anybody who’s got a bit of spare cash and wants a bit of art on their walls, go buy now! The prints will inspire you everyday and remind you that we are all a part of something that is bigger than us as individuals. Together, we are so much more impactful.
Protecting wildlife for, and not just from, people
Protecting wildlife for, and not just from, people
Thousands of northern white rhinos once roamed east and central Africa. Today there are only two of these hulking, gentle creatures alive on the planet and they are protected round-the-clock by armed guards. They survived for millions of years but couldn’t survive mankind. While much needed attention has been focused on the plight of wildlife and the poaching crises, very little has been said about what solutions we have. Indigenous communities hold the key to saving Africa’s great animals. Where these communities are intact, poaching has dramatically decreased. Trailblazing Samburu communities in northern Kenya have come together to protect wildlife, save orphaned animals and re-wild them. Community based conservation in Northern Kenya is having an impact and what’s happening there is nothing less than the beginnings of a transformation in the way people 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 wildlife. These conservancies are the culmination of a two-decades long process of protecting wildlife for, and not just from, people.