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Creative Voices

It's About the Stories: Ami Vitale

By Dan Cowles

While working for publications like National Geographic, Time, and Newsweek, and for NGOs like UNICEF and Oxfam, photographer Ami Vitale has found herself shooting in some of the most beautiful, diverse, and dangerous places in the world.

A highly experienced professional, she still finds it something of a challenge to describe herself: Conflict photographer? Photojournalist? Documentarian? Travel photographer? At various times her work could fit into any of these categories. To her, it’s not the label that’s important; it’s the stories. And it’s the people and their cultures that she wants to reveal, with the ultimate goal of bringing people closer together. “Understanding that we are more alike than we are different…that’s important,” she says.

Ami had early—and life-changing—experiences in places like Kashmir, where she spent four years covering the conflict between India and Pakistan, and Guinea-Bissau, where she lived in a mud hut in a tiny village, carrying water, looking for firewood, and sharing other responsibilities with the villagers while she documented their lives. She worked in conflict zones for about 10 years, but the constant pace and level of emotional investment took its toll, as did the demands of the media outlets, who often ask photographers to shoot stories that are already well covered, and to participate in sensationalizing them.

“I was in Gaza during the Second Intifada, and there were a dozen of us journalists shooting the same scene of violence and people getting shot at and kids throwing rocks,” she says. “I covered that because that’s what the editors wanted me to cover. I was told to get close and I did, and I showed violence. But then one day I ran into this beautiful Palestinian wedding and I thought, ‘Why aren’t we showing these images too?’ That’s what allows us to relate to these people and creates the understanding that they’re people just like you and me who want the same things in life. It really made me stop in my tracks [and ask], ‘Is this what I want to be doing?’”

THE RANCH

When questioned about her process, she says, “It’s just giving people the space to be who they are.” That sensitivity, empathy, and ability to quickly connect with people was immediately evident in the time we spent with her, just as it was also clear that she’s been profoundly moved by her experiences as a photographer around the world, seeing people she’s grown close to hurt or otherwise affected. Those experiences, coupled with her frustration over parachute journalism, make her want to slow down and go deep with a subject.

Which is why the story of the J Bar L, a 30,000-acre ranch just west of Yellowstone National Park in Montana’s Centennial Valley, is so important to Ami. Sustainable and progressive, but still tough as nails, with wolves, grizzly bears, sage grouse, and trumpeter swans sharing the land with the grass-fed cattle, the J Bar L gives Ami the opportunity to work on a quieter project in Montana, where she now lives, to get to know the people, and to discover the story as it unfolds over years instead of days.

The ranch gives her a place to retreat, reflect, and regenerate from the sensory and emotional overload of assignment work. Unlike some old-school cowboys who approach a cattle roundup as they would a battle, the folks at the J Bar L have a more enlightened touch. “I realized I was looking for exactly the opposite of conflict and fear. It’s not just this beautiful landscape, but the whole philosophy. It is exactly opposite from the sort of extremes I’ve seen.”