A Conversation With Ami Vitale
I first met Ami a few years back in New Delhi. We both were getting our Macs worked on at, what was then the only Mac repair place in North India. Not sure how we started chatting but I found out that she had just returned from Kashmir. I told her I lived up there and ran a trekking company. I think she found it hard to believe. I found it equally hard to believe this petite young lady could possibly be a real photo journalist. Boy was I wrong! Ami has won more awards and grants than anyone I know of. She has worked with the big boys and held her own.
Ami’s photographs have been published in major international magazines such as National Geographic, Adventure, Geo, Newsweek, Time, Smithsonian. She has received recognition for her work from World Press Photo, the NPPA, International Photos of the Year, Photo District News and the Society of American Travel Writers, among many other organizations. Her stories have been awarded grants including the first-ever Inge Morath grant by Magnum Photos, The Canon female photojournalist award for her work in Kashmir and the Alexia Foundation for World Peace, among others.
I am please to share with you this interview with one of my favorite photographers, Ami Vitale.
Matt: You started shooting when?
Ami: In high school but it was always a hobby. I volunteered at the Smithsonian when I was a teenager and printed photographs from their archives. Looking at great artists from the Federal Works Commission as well as other great photographers showed me the power of photography and inspired me.
Matt: Did you always want to be a photographer, plan for it, go to school?
Ami: Not really. I never knew what I wanted to do but I loved taking photographs mostly because it allowed me to meet people and break out of my introverted shell. Secretly, I think all photographers are introverts trying to find a way to bond with the world.
Matt: What prompted you doing the type of work you do rather than say studio work?
Ami: I have always been interested in people and understanding why the world is the way it is. Photography is just a passport for me to meet people, learn and experience new cultures.
Matt: Your images are infused with emotion.It is clear you have a compassionate connection with your subjects. What drives that?
Ami: I like to feel connected to others and it is always pushing me to grow and learn.
Matt: You have shots of women weeping at the funeral of a loved one, people cleaning up the blood of a boy killed in the streets in Kashmir. These are very private moments how do you put your camera up to your eyes at a time like that? Do you ever feel like an intruder?
Ami: Its true that I have been to many funerals in Kashmir and that is because I was asked to come. People wanted the world to witness this. I hated every moment of it and most of the time, I was imagining how it must be to lose your mother, your brother, your father, your sister, or any relative to a grenade blast or a gun or torture. Sadly, it is a daily reality for every Kashmiri. In 4 years, I never met one Kashmiri who had not lost a relative in the conflict. Can you imagine what that is like to have an entire society who has been so brutally affected by war? I don’t think most people in the world, especially the Western world understand that kind of suffering. I would walk through a village and all you could hear was crying from every house.
The windows were opened and the empty alleys were filled with the sound of mourning. Its haunting even now when I think about it and as much as I hated being there, I felt there was an importance. I think you never really understand this kind of sadness and fear unless you experience it. This is really a tragedy and I think its important for all of us to remember this. I was having a conversation with a friend today about how detached many people in the West are from the conflicts around the world and how our culture has cultivated this ironic detachment that allows us not to get involved.
Matt: I assume you go into a story you are covering as an observer, do you ever have a hard time staying in that role? Do you find your self getting personally involved in the story you are covering?
Ami: I personally think that I should act as a human being first and secondly as a photojournalist. I’m not covering a politician on Capitol Hill. I’m covering real situations where water, food, malaria medicine, a car ride could actually save some one’s life. Is that wrong to get involved when you can? personally I’d rather miss a great shot and make a difference in a life if I have the power to do that. I mean this is why I am telling their stories. I believe we have the power to make a difference whether its through sharing a picture or sharing whatever I have that another human being needs at that moment. I think in some ways its arrogant to think you can change the world but you can affect each other on a personal level and that is enough for me. I also think its a myth to pretend that there is an objective reality. Photos and stories do not reveal the truth, they do however expose untruths. With a multitude of narratives, a balance is maintained and truth whether it exists or not is safeguarded by not being singled out. In receiving these narratives we are able to reason that all versions matter; all must be given consideration; that all opinions must be questioned and that all perceptions have validity. In the absence of a multitude of narratives, reason remains ruined.
Matt: What was the hardest picture emotionally you every took?
Ami: I don’t know. Basically most of the situations I have been in have been emotionally very hard but I’m glad I was there. I believe it has made me a much better person. I feel happy for simple things in life and this has been a tremendous gift.
Matt: How do you decompress after a day of covering events like Kashmir or the Tsunami?
Ami: It took me several years to decompress from the work I did. I take refuge in my friends and family and the beauty of the natural world.
Matt: Was the article in National Geographic on Kolkata’s rickshaw pullers your first for them? How did you land that?
Ami: I had been working on another story for them just a week before I had to fly to India to do this one. We have been trying to collaborate for many years but its always been about finding the right story for the magazine. This is one that I pitched to them after writing a proposal and then explaining it in more detail to the editors. They got a fine writer to accompany me, Calvin Trillon and it was a wonderful experience.
Matt: What have you done to grab the eyes of editors and get assignments? What does it take?
Ami: Actually, I have been very very lucky and truthfully, I always just focus on my work and being a good story teller and the assignments come. I do not do all the traditional things that one is supposed to do. I invested my own money in the beginning to tell the stories I thought were not being told. I looked for quirky stories that illustrated larger themes and refused to follow the pack. I don’t know why but so many photographers all follow one another to the same places. This makes no sense to me.
Matt: Now let’s talk a little more technical. Can you describe your work flow after a day of shooting?
Ami: Sure, I download the images, caption and if there is time, try to make a rough edit. I also edit photos to give back to my subjects and run out at night to a one hour lab and get them printed up. Its the smallest thing I can do if I am in a place with a lab and people are so happy for this.
Ami: I carry two small external hard drives and back up the images on each drive.
Matt: What kind of post processing on the field do you do?
Ami: Nothing. Many magazines like Nat Geo, just ask for the raw files with captions. You can not delete any images so they can follow your sequence and see how you got the final shot.
Matt: Ami, thanks so much for the time and we are really look forward to you joining us on Lumen Dei ’09
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