In early 1999, Ami Vitale was working for a small business newspaper in Prague, in the Czech Republic, taking portraits of politicians and businessmen. Then things changed. "Overnight, I went from being a portrait photographer to a war photographer, covering the Kosovo Crisis," says Ami, "I did it without really knowing what I was doing." The move reflects Ami's attitude to photography, "that has been my modus operandi – when things scare me, I want to embrace that fear."
Ami embraces fear, but she isn't reckless, and this approach has enabled her to remain a busy professional photographer for almost two decades. Today, she's a leading photojournalist and film maker, with a client list that includes Nikon, National Geographic, Conservation International and Disney. Ami is also a member of Ripple Effect Images, a group of photographers, writers, scientists and film makers, who are highlighting key issues - such as food, education and climate change - and their impact on women.
Ami is clear about her objective, "It's not about the camera or even taking great images. It's not about you as a photographer and your style. It's about the stories and doing justice to the people who share those stories."
Ami was born in Florida in 1971 and graduated in International Studies at the University of North Carolina in 1993. As part of her university course, Ami studied in Denmark in 1990, and then travelled to the Czech Republic. "It was an incredible time to be there," she says. It was the time of the Velvet Revolution, when eastern European countries were breaking away from the old Soviet empire. "Every day something was happening. It was the most transformative time of my life. It gave me a hunger and a desire to leave the US and learn about other cultures."
After graduation, Ami worked for USA Today as a picture editor, before moving to the news agency AP, where she worked as a picture editor (and later international editor) in Washington and New York. In the summer of 1997, the desire to travel and take her own photographs saw Ami move to Prague and work as a photographer for a business newspaper.
"About eighteen months later, I started hearing stories about people fleeing the war in Kosovo," says Ami. "I first went there in late 1998, before NATO got involved." She emailed a number of editorial contacts, to see if they were interested in images from the conflict. "At the time, many people didn't know where Kosovo was, and there was little interest." All that changed a few months later, when peace talks broke down and NATO started bombing. "One night, I got half a dozen emails from editors wanting pictures of the conflict," says Ami, "so, I quit my job and became a war photographer."
Ami acknowledges that it was a big leap to make, "But when you're young, there's a certain ignorance and fearlessness you have." Ami spent a year covering the Kosovo War, a conflict that would cost thousands of lives. She travelled back and forth between Prague and Kosovo, spending a month at a time in the war zone. Her pictures were much in demand from British and US publications, "I had the contacts; I had the fixers and I knew how to get around," she says.
A year later, Ami was covering the Second Intifada, the conflict between Palestinians and Israel. Ami puts her survival down to careful planning and knowing when to quit, "I took time off, because you become mentally exhausted. I've always had this innate ability to leave when I mentally need a break. That allows you not to make fatal mistakes. I've known colleagues who have died. You get exhausted and your intuition doesn't work in the same way."
In 2000, Ami was awarded a grant, which she used to travel to Guinea-Bissau, in West Africa; one of the poorest countries in the world. The trip would see Ami making yet another radical change to her photographic career. "I went expecting to stay a couple of weeks and ended up living there for half a year," she notes.
Ami lived in a remote village, staying in a mud hut with four co-wives and their children. She embraced the culture; collecting firewood, water and food, learning the language, and understanding how people survive. "It was a profound moment for me, because I found that the majority of people on the planet live without access to education, healthcare, or even running water and electricity. It changed how I saw the world forever and I realised those people have a beautiful connection with the natural world."
Ami decided this is what she wanted to document – the stories of people around the world, many of whom have little or no voice. Many of Ami's commissions are for National Geographic and she has visited more than 90 countries. "It sounds exotic, but it's not about the number of countries," she says, "it's about going deep into the culture and people. My work is not about the exotic; it's about reminding us how connected we are."
Even the briefest glance at Ami's portfolio reveals a wealth of memorable and impactful shots, so what is her secret? "There is no secret. It's about patience and relationships. It's getting to know people and listening to their story. Spending time to understand the story – there's nothing more powerful than that. I often go back to the same place and some of my assignments have lasted years."
Some shoots have been fun, like the time Ami put on a panda suit when photographing pandas in China. But there are also hazards. Ami has caught malaria and other diseases and also faced danger, "I've been shot at in war zones and had a group of men try to rip me apart. There have been some terrible moments." Ami has a tip for staying safe, "if you're traveling to a place, make contact with the leaders. Take time to meet leaders and explain what you plan on doing. Once you have their blessing, it spreads like wildfire and it keeps you safe."
Ami is especially inspired by women photographers like Annie Griffiths, Lynn Johnson, Stephanie Sinclair, Susan Meiselas, Lynsey Addario and the late Eve Arnold. She travels light on assignments, typically taking just two camera bodies and several lenses. "I always take a silk sheet to protect me from the bugs. I always bring gifts and thank you cards, and always make prints for people."
Change is good for photographers, says Ami, "Change can be scary, but it forces me to be more nimble and it's good to push yourself. I think how I've stayed relevant is that I'm constantly re-inventing myself; learning new skills and embracing all the new tools. You should be diverse in your work and work across different platforms." Ami shoots a lot of 4K video and is now creating VR films. "My latest National Geographic assignment involved me writing the story, shooting stills and making films – things I would never have dreamt of doing ten years ago."
It's important that photographers try to hold onto their copyright, says Ami, and to understand that taking pictures only represents about one percent of the work – planning, researching, traveling, editing, marketing and managing your brand use up most of your time.
Ami has seen plenty of war, poverty and sickness, but despite this, she remains optimistic. "I know the world looks like a dangerous place right now," she says , "however, everywhere I go, even in the most desperate situations, people for the most part feel their lives are improving. The majority of people care about one another, their environment, and we have to remember to see the whole picture and not just focus on the things that divide us."
She adds, "It's easy to switch on the TV and think it's the end of humanity, but the world is a magical place. Most people are trying to make the best of their situation and want the same things as everyone else – education for their children, security and a better world. I think photography can inspire people to get out there and make the world a better place."www.amivitale.com