One of the world’s leading international news agencies features a weekly thread on its website titled, “World sport: 10 photos we liked this week.”
It sounds generic — and it is — but it reminded me of how so often of how I find my favourite nature photographers. Often they are cameramen and women I’ve never heard of before. I end up stumbling over one of their images — I’m a restless reader, and constantly curious — and am moved and inspired for reasons I can’t quite pin down.
Photography — not just the taking of photographs, but being appreciative of other people’s work as a consumer — is subjective. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve come across the winner of a high-profile photography contest, and then seen the runners-up, and thought to myself: What were they thinking?
Nine times out of ten, I see a runner-up that, to my eye, is so much more revealing and emotionally stirring than the one the judges picked that I’m at a loss for words. Who’s to say one image is “better” than another, anyway? It comes down to personal taste, an instant reaction followed by a gut feeling and a dawning realization that one has just witnessed greatness, a seminal moment captured in time forevermore.
So often, when I think of “10 photos we liked this week,” I think of a single image, and then an entire portfolio of images by that photographer, once I check that person’s website, their past work and present work.
I’d be terrible at editing a “10 photos we liked this week” list because, inevitably, my list would feature 10 photos by the same photographer.
And this past week, that photographer was Ami Vitale.
I came across a web article by BBC News picture editor Phil Coomes, ‘Ami Vitale: A life devoted to photography’
and was immediately reminded of an image I had glimpsed briefly once before, while editing a blog item on this year’s World Press Photo Awards. Her picture of a ranger bonding with an orphaned baby elephant at the small, community-based Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya had just been nominated in the environment category for this year’s awards. (The winners will be announced on April 12th in Amsterdam, followed by an exhibition at the World Press Photo Festival on April 13th and 14th.)
I read the piece by Phil Coomes, and Vitale struck a recurring chord in me. My own background is hard news — I came to nature photography in early retirement from daily journalism — and I was struck how Vitale started out as an intern at a small newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina in the early 1990s, around the time I started to cover municipal news in my local big-city newspaper-of-record. Vitale quit her job in North Carolina to pursue her dream of being a foreign correspondent; I, too, briefly entertained ambitions of one day being a foreign correspondent, early in my career. The difference is Vitale took a leap of faith and took the jump. She did a brief spell at a newspaper in the Czech Republic, then found herself covering the conflict in Kosovo.
One of my first media interviews at the time was with CNN’s London-based correspondent and anchor Christiane Amanpour, who had made her own reputation covering the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1998.
This is actually quite common for high-profile conservation and wildlife photographers. South Africa’s Brent Stirton, current holder of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award — sponsored by London’s Natural History Museum and the largest and most influential wildlife photo competition of its kind in the world — began his career as a photojournalist covering famine, genocide and political upheavals in conflict zones throughout his home continent of Africa. Stirton won numerous prizes, including several citations from the United Nations for a long-term project he did based on the social, economic and political instability caused by the HIV-AIDS epidemic sweeping across Africa and the developing world at the time. Several years ago, in 2007, while covering an outbreak of violence in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), he took a stirring image of a dead mountain gorilla being hauled out of its rainforest home by park rangers, and vowed to become a conservation photographer for the remainder of his career with a camera.
It’s no coincidence that Stirton, Steve Winter, Cristina Mittermeier — and Vitale herself — have done some of their finest, most stirring work for National Geographic. As Vitale told BBC’s Coomes, she learned over time that she wanted to work on stories that bring people together and reflect life beyond the latest headline.
“The thing that struck me,” Vitale told Coomes, “after witnessing so much conflict and violence in my career is that every single issue I covered, whether it was war or poverty or health, always ended up being dependent on nature for its outcomes.”
Coomes’ interview with Vitale brought me in a roundabout way to her website (amivitale.com), and her striking portfolios of ‘Pandas Gone Wild’ (soon to be a book, Panda Love: The Secret Lives of Pandas); ‘Montana Ranching Redefined’ (the state Vitale now calls home); ‘Kenya’s Last Rhinos,’ ‘Kashmir: Paths to Peace,’ ‘Coffee and Ethiopia,’ ‘Budapest Baths,’ ‘The Cost of Coal,’ ‘Gujarat,’ ’Cappadocia’ and ‘Israeli Palestinian Conflict.’
If asked right now to pick “10 photos I liked this week,” I’m afraid all 10 would be Vitale’s, as I only now devoted the better part of an hour poring through her images on her website. They’re, in a word, stunning.
The word is getting out. She will appear as a featured speaker this weekend (March 17) at The Photography Show in Birmingham in the UK, and is scheduled to talk as one of the featured NatGeo photographers in the National Geographic Live series, in Kitchener, Ontario on April 26th; Buffalo, NY on May 8th; and San Jose, Calif. the following night, on May 9th.
“The world is a beautiful place and we need to celebrate the goodness,” Vitale said in a TED Talk in Shanghai, two years ago. “It’s everywhere.”