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Ami Vitale: Getting Beyond the Headlines

BY Susan Markisz
January 2003

Photojournalist Ami Vitale is on the road less traveled. Often unpaved, and at times dangerous, that road has taken her in the last three years, to places of surreal beauty and civil unrest. It has also taken her to places where there is extreme poverty and horrible destruction of life and property, and to villages where there is no running water or electricity, places she describes as “worlds apart.” But it is not the differences that have drawn Vitale to them; it is the commonality of human emotions and life experiences that have irrevocably bonded her with the people she has photographed in them.

Vitale’s photographs have appeared in Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report and The New York Times, among others and two stories which she completed in 2001 in Guinea Bissau and Mauritania placed first in the National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism. In 2000, Vitale was the recipient of several grants, including one from the Alexia Foundation, which enabled her to travel to Africa to work on a story she called “Notes from a Mud Hut.” The story had germinated in 1995 while visiting her sister who had been living in Guinea Bissau while working for the Peace Corps.

After receiving the Alexia grant, she returned to Guinea Bissau in 2001, where she thought she would stay two or three months, but ended up staying six. “It helped me to realize what I wanted to do with my work,” said Vitale, “and that is to get beyond the headlines, to show how the majority of people live on this planet. As soon as you get off that paved road and into the villages, it’s a marvelous life,” not an easy one, she insists, but one that calls out for understanding and compassion, if for no other reason than to dispel misconceptions and to foster an awareness of distant cultures.

Initially she had intended to cover the effects of the war on the people of Guinea Bissau, but the idea changed dramatically once she arrived. “In fact, the people had adapted quite well, and the effects of it were almost impossible to see,” said Vitale. Instead, she lived in the village of Dembel Jumpora, in a mud-hut with a woman named Fama Jamanka and her children, photographing daily life, becoming intimately involved in the daily routines of the village and learning to speak rudimentary Pulaar. Far from the comforts of home, the bed she slept on was made of sticks and hay, and Dembel Jumpora had no running water. “It was pretty funny,” she remembered, “the kids asked me why I did not pull the water out of the well quickly. And then I had to explain that we just had to turn a switch to get water and they were amazed.”

Vitale’s photographs transcend the ordinary glance; they are filled with an intimacy and insight that does not come from simple observation. Amy Vitale is not the proverbial fly on the wall. She does not simply report her stories. She lives them. While the journalist Vitale likes taking pictures, she cherishes the life experiences as much as getting them on film. “It almost had less to do with photography; it was a whole other look at Guinea Bissau,” she said. “They taught me everything from learning to carry water in buckets on my head to laughing in the face of some terrible stuff.”

When Vitale wasn’t taking pictures, she was collecting such food staples as cashews and mangoes and water, washing clothes, playing with the children and going to ceremonies… “lots of things and nothing at the same time,” she said. “Much of life was ceremonial…every week there was a funeral, or a wedding, teenage weddings…and male and female circumcisions.” Her pictures of a female circumcision may make people shudder but she takes a different view.

“At first I was horrified… but we take things out of cultural context. It is horrible, but I left with the understanding that we can’t go in and change these rituals. If you want to do something, start helping people by paying more for their crops. I think you have to start with bigger issues. I remember reading a WTO document on the cashew market and knowing before they did, that the cashews were going to fetch them half of what they got the year before. People were excited the cashew season was coming because it was the end of the dry season and there was no food left in the village. But it made my heart sink knowing they would be getting half of an already abysmal price for their hard work. They are in such a vulnerable situation and the odds are against them. In the end, it was terrible to watch how little they made for their perishable goods like mangoes, cassava, rice and cashews, and how much they had to pay for the things they need…like life saving medicines for curable diseases like malaria.”

Vitale believes that by spending time on a story, and by living with the people she photographs, it has helped her to get beneath the surface of a story. “You have to get into a culture to actually live there to understand things aren’t as sensational when you understand them in their context. I’ve jumped in, parachuted into a few places before and I didn’t like it. It’s very dangerous and I’ve felt like I wasn’t portraying things truthfully, or it was a different truth.”

Vitale began her career in photography after graduation from UNC with a degree in International Studies, by working as a picture editor for the Associated Press in New York and Washington, D.C. But it wasn’t long before she decided she wanted to start taking the kinds of photographs that were on her computer screen. “I can actually remember the day,” she said, “seeing some pictures coming in from the Balkans and being really moved.”

She saved money by working overtime at AP on the desk until 1997, when she moved to the Czech Republic where she began traveling throughout Eastern Europe and Africa. “I saved money, am single, have no family, no responsibilities, so I tried doing little feature stories, writing and trying to sell photo packages to newspapers, just to break even. In Angola, nobody was interested in the ongoing war, so I found little sidebar stories like the oil expats [sic] and a bunch of French surfers living in a war zone… anything to break even.” Although she says has difficulty editing her own work, she adds “it was great to begin editing because it allowed me to understand how the industry works and what editors in New York and Paris were looking for.”

Now 31 and based in Kashmir, India, she is working under contract for Getty Images and also does work for several NGOs, which have also supported her work on the kinds of stories she is passionate about in places like Kashmir and Gujarat which are very meaningful for her. Her often lush and compelling images of Kashmir, belie the tensions and violence that are just beneath the surface. While the United Nations calls Kashmir the most dangerous place on earth, Vitale says it’s a misconception. “The people are warm and wonderful. The majority are not militants; the majority of people are not terrorists; they’re just trying to have a life. What’s happening there is very sad; they’re caught between something that is much bigger than they are. Sadly, journalists love it there. You go to these places, it’s not St. Tropez, but the people are great, they want to be heard, they want the terror to stop.”

Vitale gets very emotional about the violence and bloodshed that she witnessed this year in India’s riot torn western state of Gujarat, a conflict borne out of religious hatred between Hindus and Muslims. But she feels that it is an example of how the media can effect positive change. “The media really influenced the government to take action and stop the violence which was brutal. It hasn’t gone away, but the government has taken steps that they never would have without media attention.” Vitale feels it is important for journalists to think about the implications of their images, how they are being used, and to make sure they are not sensationalizing things. “To be honest,” she says, “the more I do this, the less I do it for photography’s sake. I love photography, but it’s more about what’s happening. I wish I were a better writer, or poet or musician, to use some other way to use my experience to move people. We’re at a crucial time in the world, so polarized, with such a lack of understanding. The pictures themselves have power, but I don’t want to do it to make nice pictures.”

Vitale feels that it’s important to bridge cultural gaps and although she can understand why someone in Kansas City might have little interest in what’s happening halfway around the world, she thinks it is important. “In my personal viewpoint, I feel like even though you can’t see it, everything is really connected. I see a ripple effect…for example, people are paying $8.00 a pound of coffee and yet in Kenya people are going into debt who are producing it. And the violence…all of these things affect us. People feel hopeless like they can’t do anything about it, but they can do a lot by understanding, by reading through the headlines, by being a little more compassionate.”

To young photojournalists who are concerned that these kinds of stories can’t be done, or that there is no interest, Vitale’s response is to “keep going.” I hear people saying ‘don’t go there, nobody cares about it; can’t be done.’ Maybe it won’t be in National Geographic, but save some money, find a niche; research a story and if anything you’re going to get so much out of it. The experience is great. I want to be a more positive voice for the industry. I truly believe that everybody has a voice; everybody has something to say.”

“We all do this for personal reasons,” says Vitale. Of her experience in Guinea Bissau, she says she is grateful. “I miss the simple ways and how they look at life. I think of them often, every time I see a full moon, it makes me think of my last night there when they asked if we had a moon in America. I loved that I noticed time moving by the moon and the seasons. There was no future for me, just day to day. I think it helped me see things and my life in a radically different way. I don’t know if it’s possible to get to a truth, but I’m searching for that.”

© 2003 Susan B. Markisz

Enter Ami Vitale: Getting Beyond the Headlines

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Getting Beyond the Headlines
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Do People Care?
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The Editor / Photographer Relationship
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How Do You Finance Your Stories?
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The Changing Technology
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Adivce for Young Photojournalists
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