Ami Vitale: Not About the Image
This article was originally published in April 2016.
Photography is not about the camera. It’s not even about the beautiful images we create. It is about telling powerful stories. Photography is 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. And I believe the way to find common ground is by seeing yourself in others. A lot of my work involves traveling to foreign countries and living in remote places. My job is to become invisible and get close to people and wildlife, so I can bring their stories to life. For me, the intimate moments always matter the most. It’s no different being in my home state of Montana, USA than it is being in a country five thousand miles away.
For starters, I read everything I can about the place that I’ll be visiting, especially local newspapers and social media. Local stories give me clues about what’s really happening in a place and I also make it a point of befriending other photographers and sources. Secondly, I try to fit in with the scene. Understated is always best. Sensitivity for the norms of where you are goes a long way to being accepted. I also avoid looking like the stereotypical photographer (black cargo pants or vests with lots of pockets).
In one case, I was in China where the first female giant panda was being released back into the wild. I dressed myself up as a tree so as not to scare her. The director of the panda program was so touched, he came running up to me, hugged me, and exclaimed, “You get to hold two baby pandas! President Obama, he only held one baby panda.” The doors opened and I got excellent access for the rest of the story, and I got far stronger images because of it. Later, the other photographers and I all dressed as pandas so we could get behind-the-scenes access to the panda training center where they train captive-born pandas to go back into the wild. If there is only one thing you take away from this, I hope it’s the understanding that all of us are not only photographers, but we are storytellers. There is a beautiful, universal truth everywhere and, if you peek under the veil, you’ll find a wondrous commonality between us. I hope that in your travels, you use your camera not just as an extension of your eye but also as an extension of your heart.
This text has been excerpted from Ami Vitale’s blog www.amivitale.com where it originally appeared for B&H Photo’s Explora Blog.Tags: Visual Musings, december 2014, Ami Vitale