Ami Vitale is a renowned National Geographic photographer and documentarian with a deep commitment to wildlife conservation and environmental education. Her work, spanning over a hundred countries, includes spending a decade as a conflict photographer in places like Kosovo, Gaza, and Kashmir.
She joined Tyler to discuss why we should stay scary to pandas, whether we should bring back extinct species, the success of Kenyan wildlife management, the mental cost of a decade photographing war, what she thinks of the transition from film to digital, the ethical issues raised by Afghan Girl, the future of National Geographic, the heuristic guiding of where she’ll travel next, what she looks for in a young photographer, her next project, and more.
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Recorded November 1st, 2023
Read the full transcript
Special thanks to listener Margit Wennmachers for sponsoring this transcript.
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m chatting with Ami Vitale. She is a National Geographic photographer, writer, speaker, and documentary filmmaker. She’s been a wartime conflict photographer for about 10 years. She is an important figure in the animal conservation movement, and she’s traveled to more than a hundred countries.
She’s author of the 2018 best-selling book Panda Love, and she is founder and director of a new nonprofit for arts education around the world, called Vital Impacts. You can see her work on her homepage. If you Google her, that’s Ami, A-M-I, Ami Vitale, and also on Instagram. Ami, welcome.
AMI VITALE: Thank you, Tyler. It’s wonderful to be with you today.
COWEN: Why is it that human panda keepers dress up as pandas?
VITALE: [laughs] Well, the thinking was that pandas should never be comfortable around humans because humans are one of the biggest threats to most wild animals. In this case, these were captive-born pandas who were being trained to go back to the wild because after one generation in captivity, they do not know how to survive in the wild.
The lucky pandas that were chosen to be a part of this program — they didn’t want them interacting with humans. The main point about it is that these costumes — pandas go by smell, not sight, so the panda costumes were actually scented with panda urine because the thought was that they should not know that humans were around them.
COWEN: So, you and I should stay scary to the pandas.
VITALE: We should stay scary to the pandas. I don’t know if it worked, but I thought it was a creative idea in China’s effort to get these pandas off the endangered species list.
COWEN: Now, I understand that in the 1960s, the survival rate for panda babies was pretty low. I think you mentioned once 30 percent, and right now, it’s about 90 percent. What accounts for that difference? What is it we’re getting right now?
VITALE: Well, it’s such a great story. The truth is, I think the most important thing is that they did a great job of making the world fall in love with pandas, and more importantly, the people living closest to the pandas. Pandas were poached for a long time. I think harsher policing, harsher laws if you poached a panda, and then just making the world fall in love with this creature really did a lot for panda conservation.
Then there was another piece, which was, they understood that the pandas were endangered in the wild, and so they did a few things. They had a breeding program because they wanted to have 300 pandas in captivity in case they went extinct in the wild. Actually, they managed to crack the code, learn how to breed them in captivity, and now are releasing them back into the wild.
The last important piece of it is, China is one of the few countries in the world where forest coverage is actually growing. They are reforesting areas, connecting existing corridors where pandas live so that they can move when there are droughts and there are bamboo die-offs, basically giving them space to survive. That is probably the most essential thing we can do around the world for all of wildlife.
COWEN: Speaking of breeding, can you explain to me the Darwinian equilibrium with pandas? If I have this right, the females are fertile for only a few days a year, and actually, pandas themselves don’t already know how to do it. Why would they have evolved that way? How does that make sense?
VITALE: I actually think that’s a bit of a myth. They were thought to be a species without a sex drive, but actually, the truth is they’re just very elusive animals, and they do have this tiny window to breed. When the factors in the wild are not so difficult for them, they’re fine. A lot of it was deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and that was a huge piece of the breeding in the wild.
But then in captivity, they were trying to breed them for about two decades with no success. They didn’t realize these two factors: one, that they have this tiny window, and two, that the females need choice to breed, so you just can’t put any old male panda together with them. Once they realized these two things, they have a very successful breeding program. Now scientists are rethinking this idea about the species without a sex drive. They do.
COWEN: What’s the proper allocation mechanism for pandas across countries, across zoos? As I’m sure you know, the US is about to lose its pandas.
COWEN: Who should decide how pandas get allocated?
VITALE: That’s a great question. To be honest, I think it’s really a symbol of our relations. Many people know this, but the panda was gifted in the beginning. They were gifted to countries and used as a diplomatic tool. The first one was gifted to Nixon, I believe, in this country. I’m not a politician, so I don’t know, but I get the sense that it is symbolic of what’s happening between our nations. I don’t know the answer to this, but the Chinese own these bears and it is their choice to loan them. This is their choice.
COWEN: Do you think animals have rights of privacy at all?
VITALE: Oh, wow. Now we’re getting into territory that — honestly, I wish we didn’t have to have captive animals. Ideally, we would not. I don’t myself enjoy seeing animals in captivity, and we’ve come to such a place in order to keep species alive. The reason that some species are still here with us today is because of scientists seeing into the future, and a lot of great conservation efforts are happening because of zoos.
Let’s switch this now to the case of the northern white rhinos. They would actually be extinct right now if it were not for — I believe it was in the ’60s. I’m not sure on that, but the Dvůr Králové Zoo brought northern white rhinos from the wild into the zoo, and if it were not for them, they would now be extinct.
I have really mixed feelings about all of this. Until we get to a better place as human beings, I see a value. But not all zoos are the same, not all captive animals are the same, and I think we also need to change our understanding. Jane Goodall and many other people have figured out that these creatures are sentient; they’re intelligent life.
I was just speaking to a woman who did research on dolphins, and she said something very interesting. Dolphins have been around for many, many millions of years, and she believes that they have evolved not just to have this heightened sense of empathy, but she believes that they actually understand that another dolphin’s suffering is their own suffering.
I love thinking about this. I love this idea that if we, as humans, can really start to understand that all of our suffering is the suffering of others. Animals understand that. Elephants understand that. I’ve witnessed that with orphaned herds and how much they care for each other. My great hope for humanity is that we, too, can evolve to really understand and feel one another’s suffering and joy. That, to me, is the only way we’re going to exist in the future.
COWEN: As you probably know, there’s a long-standing and recurring set of debates between animal welfare advocates and environmentalists. The animal welfare advocates typically have less sympathy for the predators because they, in turn, kill other animals. The environmentalists are more likely to think we should, in some way, leave nature alone as much as possible. Where do you stand on that debate?
VITALE: It depends. It’s hard to make a general sweeping statement on this because in some cases, I think that we do have to get involved. Also, the fact is, it’s humans in most cases who have really impacted the environment, and we do need to get engaged and work to restore that balance. I really fall on both sides of this. I will say, I do think that is, in some cases, what differentiates us because, as human beings, we have to kill to survive. Maybe that is where this — I feel like every story I work on has a different answer. Really, I don’t know. It depends what the situation is. Should we bring animals back to landscapes where they have not existed for millions of years? I fall in the line of no. Maybe I’m taking this in a totally different direction, but it’s really complicated, and there’s not one easy answer.
VITALE: And the dodo and the thylacine.
COWEN: And more to come, perhaps, right?
VITALE: More to come. Well, when I first heard about the story to bring back these extinct species, I thought it was a waste of money and insane. Then I actually met people from the Colossal Project, and I’ve really changed my thinking on this. In some cases, I don’t know that they’ll get there in our lifetime, but they have a really good argument for the woolly mammoth. They believe that bringing species back to landscapes where they’ve been gone can serve a function in the same way bringing wolves back to Yellowstone is. It restores the ecosystem and restores that balance that is missing.
They believe that by bringing the woolly mammoth back, they will churn up that soil and serve in the way that bison served in the landscapes here in Montana. The same thing happened. I’ll explain that a little more — you need to keep that land healthy. When you don’t have the hooves and the animals grazing and working that landscape, it actually starts to suffer.
You need all these animals to create a healthy ecosystem. When you take out the keystone species, the whole land starts to suffer, and it trickles down to all the different species. Their thinking is, by bringing the woolly mammoth back, it’s going to restore the landscape.
I actually think they have a much more interesting function as a company. They actually are working with species that are close to extinction but are still here. For example, they’re teaming up with a northern white rhino in the BioRescue project. By basically adding genetic diversity back to the embryos that they’ve created, the BioRescue project has created 29 viable embryos, and they’ll use southern white rhino surrogates to restore these species.
They only have two northern white rhino females alive, and they’re using just one female — her eggs — to create these embryos. They need more genetic diversity, and Colossal is able to go into museum specimens and add genetic diversity. Taking this, I think that they have a really important value, and whether woolly mammoths are brought back — maybe it will happen in a hundred years from now. I don’t know if we’ll see this in our lifetime. Maybe we will, but I think that there’s value more for the species that are currently here.
We need to help these keystone species because, actually, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen environments — I work a lot in northern Kenya, and there are landscapes where keystone species have been locally extinct for about 30 years, and you really see how it starts to impact the entire ecosystem. Then I’ve seen the reverse, where they brought back these animals to these ecosystems, and it’s amazing how resilient nature is when they give it a chance. You bring it back.
We’ve seen examples in Yellowstone, in northern Kenya, when they brought rhinos and elephants back to these landscapes. Literally within five, ten years, you start to see the whole environment start to heal. For example, elephants tread up that grass. They’re like huge mobile composting units. The grass starts to grow and other species return. Then it’ll ultimately help human beings. I see all of us. I think that’s the main thing — how do we start to see that we are part of this beautiful web and that every piece matters?
Back to Stewart and his work with Colossal — I see a value in it. I was very suspicious because very often people use these headlines to get attention, and you have to read through the headlines and really understand what is happening. In this case, I see some value there.
COWEN: Now, you have a movie on your homepage, which I would recommend to everyone, where you’re spending a lot of time photographing and filming rhinos. Why isn’t that more dangerous than it seems to be?
VITALE: Well, the rhinos that I’m working with were born in captivity, sadly, and they are used to humans. I don’t recommend working with wild rhinos in the same way. Actually, these rhinos know my smell. They know who I am. I’ve been working with them now for over 15 years.
But I think the saddest part of this story is the loss of a wild — there are no more wild northern white rhinos. I would say that, to me, is the biggest tragedy. I feel like it’s not just the loss of an ecosystem, which is important in itself, but to me, it’s on this other level. I feel like we are losing something so much a part of ourselves. We’re losing what it means to be wild. We are animals too. When we lose all these wild animals, we’re losing what it means to be wild.
On a philosophical level, I realize it’s like a loss of wonder and the wild of who we are when we lose so many species. I’m sure all your listeners understand that we’re going through the sixth mass extinction, which is purely human-driven. To me, I feel like we’re losing a piece of ourselves right now.
COWEN: Kenyan villagers wish there were more elephants or fewer elephants around?
VITALE: Oh, great question. It depends who you ask. I’m glad you brought up Kenya. Kenya is one of the greatest success stories right now. They have really made this incredible shift from 20, 30 years ago. All of their rhinos and elephants and so many other species were being poached to extinction, and Kenya made this big shift.
Today, the greatest threat to these species is not poaching. It is actually climate change. How did they do it? How is Kenya so different from other countries? Well, I think it’s a few things. It’s greater policing, stricter laws, but the main thing is there is community engagement in protecting these creatures. The communities living closest to the animals understand their value to them.
During the pandemic, when the tourism stopped and so many other countries were facing poaching levels that had never been seen — for example, in South Africa during the pandemic, over 400 rhinos were poached. Guess how many rhinos were poached in Kenya? Zero. Why is that? It’s because the communities understood that they need these wild animals, not just for healthy ecosystems, for their own survival. They understood that they need them for tourism, they need them for a healthy ecosystem.
It’s not that these animals aren’t difficult, for they will come in and eat farmers’ crops in one day that they’ve spent months cultivating. These animals are dangerous. They’re wild animals. They present threats to people. I think in the West, we no longer understand what it means to live with wild animals. People in many places around the world understand what it is to live with wild animals.
But Kenyans actually understand that they need to protect these animals, and the government is more involved in trying to support communities when elephants and rhinos, and there’s loss of life, loss of crops. They’re trying to actively figure out ways — how do you coexist with these creatures.
I love that you brought up Kenya because, honestly, as foreigners, it is a place that all of us can go. Our tourism dollars can make a huge impact. We’re all in this big ecosystem, and we need to figure out where we should support conservation efforts. Kenya is one of them because if you take the time to figure out where your tourism dollars are going to support communities, that is going to have a huge impact on how the communities take care of the wildlife.
COWEN: What did you find to be most surprising or most interesting in the culture of the Samburu in northern Kenya?
VITALE: Well, I keep learning, but they teach me so much. It’s really important to remember the communities living with the wildlife are their greatest protectors. That is the case with the Samburu, certainly. I met them, gosh, now it’s 13, 14 years ago, and they had a dream back then to protect the wildlife.
That community also suffered gangs of poachers coming in and poaching the wildlife. This was a community pushing back and saying, “We need to protect the wildlife because we need them for our own survival, too.” Against all odds, they created the first indigenous-owned elephant sanctuary in all of Africa.
Back when I first met them, it was just a dream, and many people laughed at them and thought, “There’s no way you’re going to be able to make an elephant sanctuary because they’re expensive and you don’t have the political power. You don’t have the funding.”
But they did it. I’ve been following along on their journey, and it’s really extraordinary. It’s called Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. I hope anybody interested who has the means can go and visit this place because what they’re doing is changing, not just how people there relate to wild animals, but how they relate to each other. It’s also the first elephant sanctuary that hires indigenous women to be elephant keepers in a very patriarchal society, and it’s transforming a lot. They’re doing things differently there. It’s so interesting.
Another story — they’ve made huge impacts in our understanding of elephant behavior. Also, one of the great discoveries during the pandemic was, they were worried about what would happen. When an elephant is orphaned, they have to switch overnight from drinking its mother’s milk to drinking a powdered milk formula that is really made for human babies. That is the most dangerous time for orphans. They come into the sanctuary, and they often can’t handle that transition from drinking their own mother’s milk to a powdered milk formula, so 50 percent of the time, they die.
Reteti got worried during the pandemic about what would happen if we can’t even get ahold of the powdered milk formula because of supply chains breaking down. They started looking at nature for solutions, and they discovered that goats eat the same, browse the same vegetation as elephants do. They started experimenting, and they made perhaps one of their greatest discoveries. They went from a 50 percent survival rate to a 98 percent survival rate. Now these babies come into the sanctuary, and they’re able to make that transition.
Another piece of the story, which I love, is that all that money that was being sent outside the country to big multinational milk companies — now that money’s all staying within the community. I went with the milk mamas, is what they call them. It’s the women Samburu who own the goats, and they set up bank accounts for the first time in their lives. They’re able to send their kids to school, to have money for healthcare. It’s absolutely changing the whole community. The people there always tell me, “It’s not us saving the baby elephants. The elephants are saving us.”
I just love watching all the discoveries they keep making. They have had a long relationship over generations, living with wildlife. They have so much to teach all of us. I think there is this great understanding happening around the world that there’s so much knowledge. We, as Westerners, need to start listening to some of the knowledge that is right there with the people living closest to these creatures.
COWEN: Now, you did conflict photojournalism for about 10 years. Risk aside, was it fun?
COWEN: Why do it for 10 years?
VITALE: Oh, I think it was the extraordinary people I met. It began because I just wanted to understand this world, and why we have so much suffering, and how do these conflicts emerge. I was never one of those adrenaline junkies. So many of my friends really hopped from one conflict to the next, and it was like parachute journalism. I, in the beginning, started my career and I was asked to go to . . . The first conflict I covered was Gaza. Actually, no, the first was Kosovo and the Balkan conflict, and then to Gaza and the second intifada.
I immediately understood that I could not do parachute journalism. It is really important to take time to understand these stories that we’re covering. I ended up living in Kashmir for four years to cover the war between India and Pakistan and taking that time to listen, to truly hear people’s stories. I think what drew me in was the people I met. I am always shocked in these places that are so brutal, where you see the worst of humanity, I also met the people, the best of humanity, who taught me so much. They kept me coming back.
After 10 years of that, that’s when I really shifted. I was broken and raw and wanted to quit. It was then I really began to realize this connection, that I had been telling these stories about people in the human condition, but at the backdrop of every single one of them was always the natural world. That was my profound awakening, when I began to understand that in every single example — well, not every example, but in many of them, it was scarcity of basic resources like water and in others, a changing climate and loss of fertile lands.
Almost always, it is the demands placed on our ecosystem that drive conflict and human suffering. That was my big shift in understanding that it was important to talk about the conflicts, but it was equally important to talk about what we’re doing to this planet. Just in this last year alone, how many more conflicts have started around the world? How many more coups? I think in Africa just this year, maybe the last six months, is it six or seven more coups? Tyler, you know this better than I, but I see it, and I think to not acknowledge that connection is ignorant.
We need to start paying attention to that. We’re going to see so many more conflicts if we do not pay attention. To focus on what do we do, it’s not enough as a journalist. That was something else that made me deeply uncomfortable, which is, I was asked to focus on the violence, show just one piece of the story. Never was I asked to tell the stories that acknowledge where we go, what do we do, where are the solutions? Are there solutions?
I know there’s no easy balm and no solution for so many of these problems. But the truth is, in every story I’ve covered, there are amazing people who are working to try to find answers, but we don’t highlight their work. As journalists, we have to do a better job of not just talking about the challenges we face, but where do we go from here? What do we do? There are people in every single story, and we need to focus on their stories as well.
COWEN: What was it you did in year nine to keep yourself from going crazy from the stress, the destruction, the sorrow? You did this for 10 years.
VITALE: Oh, yes.
COWEN: You entered year nine. It must be very tough.
VITALE: Well, in year nine, no, I was broken. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do in year nine. I was very depressed and didn’t know whether I would carry on. Many times, I thought about quitting. In year nine, I had examples when I realized the power of what we do that stopped me from quitting. I realized it was in those moments when you want to quit that you never give up because what we do is actually very powerful.
I had examples of seeing the fact that I always chose to go to tell stories that not a lot of journalists were covering. I realized that sometimes it was getting those images back into the international dialogue that was important, and that’s when I needed to stay.
In year nine, you didn’t want to know me. I was really depressed and not in a good place. Then year 10, that’s when I really understood that I needed to take a break and step away from covering the horrors of the world because I was not able to think clearly. Actually, that is how so many of my colleagues end up getting killed, because you don’t know when to stop and take a break, because you need to be 100 percent present and clear about what’s happening in front of you. If you’re so broken, you can’t do that.
So, in year 10, I took a break. In that break, a conservation organization approached me and asked me to do work on talking about forests and how important they are. That’s also when I began my story on the northern white rhinos. That was the moment I began to understand that connection to the natural world, and I needed to also tell the stories about the natural world and how connected they are to all of these conflicts.
COWEN: I believe you started your career photographing businesspeople. Was that fun?
VITALE: No, I did not enjoy it at all. I moved to the Czech Republic in a very exciting moment in their history. I did a study abroad in 1990 and then ended up in the Czech Republic in 1991. That was in a tremendously exciting time to be there. I knew I wanted to go back.
In 1997, I returned to work for a small business newspaper. I got to meet really interesting people — Václav Havel. There was this moment right after the wall had come down. It was this moment of so much hope, and it was exciting, very exciting to be there. That quickly shifted to quitting my job and covering the war in the Balkans in 1997. Almost nine months later, I was there as conflict was unfolding, and I ended up quitting that job and becoming a war photographer without really knowing what I was doing, but just something inside of me knew I had to go.
COWEN: Some questions about photography. What is lost with the switch from film to digital?
VITALE: Well, it’s funny. A lot of people lament the loss of film, but I tell you, when I began my career, the reality is I was carrying film, chemicals, a blow dryer to dry the roll of film that was hanging in my hotel room, a huge scanner. Then I was up all night trying to transmit one to two images per night from working in these remote places.
So I don’t lament the loss, to be honest, because right now digital has transformed our world. We can go into the world and bring back these really important news stories from the field and transmit them faster than we ever have. There’s a whole other list of issues we have to talk about with AI. But to me, honestly, it’s probably better for the environment. I think about all the chemicals we dumped into the planet.
Yes, there is a loss of that beautiful texture. Every image was unique. I think that there’s no time in human history where, as creatives, we can create anything we want. From a creative perspective, we can still create unique images and create anything we imagine. At the same time, then I, as a journalist with my journalist hat on, I worry about authenticity and what are we going to do to make sure we have ways of identifying when images are authentic and have not been manipulated.
I think that both camera companies and the companies like Adobe who do post-processing manipulation are working to be able to figure out how we can create these stamps on the images to know they’re authentic. We’re in troubling times right now. Taking your question into a totally different space, I worry more about AI and what it’s doing to the trust of how do we know what’s real and misinformation. We’re entering new waters right now that are terrifying. I think more about that than I think about the loss of film.
COWEN: As you know, there are now social networks everywhere, for quite a while. Images everywhere, even before Midjourney. There are so many images that people are looking at. How does that change how you compose or think about photos?
VITALE: Well, it doesn’t at all. My job is to tell stories with images, and not just with images. My job as a storyteller — that has not changed. Nothing has changed in the sense of, we need more great storytellers, visual storytellers. With all of those social media, I think people are bored with just beautiful images. Or sometimes it feels like advertising, and it doesn’t captivate me.
I look for a story and image, and I am just going to continue doing what I do because I think people are hungry for it. They want to know who is really going deep on stories and who they can trust. I think that that has never gone away, and it will never go away.
I actually enjoy having social media because it’s allowed me to connect with people in a really real way that I never could have connected with. There was always the media that we worked for, and I could never connect with people. Now I have this one-to-one connection, and it is individuals who have empowered me sometimes to go and continue telling the stories that I tell today.
I think that you just have to be adaptable in today’s world and keep adapting to the changing landscapes that we’re dealing with. But I always think about stories. How do we tell the stories in a really deep, meaningful way? I think visual images, by the way, have never had more reach and power than they do today. I will always love the power of what we do because we can reach people both intellectually, but also with our hearts, and that is really important.
COWEN: What would be an example of a photo by others that truly has mattered to you?
VITALE: Oh gosh. My first example is Steve Winter’s image of P22, which is a cougar that he photographed below the Hollywood sign. This story is so incredible. He dreamed of this image 10 years before he even took it. The problem is that he talked to the scientists all working in this landscape, and they said, “Steve, there are no cougars in this landscape. You can dream it, but there are no cougars there.” He said, “I’m just going to try.” He set up camera traps for over a year underneath the Hollywood sign and dreamt this image.
Sure enough, he was right. There were cougars in this landscape, and the problem is that they were separated from habitat across 10 lanes of traffic. His one image is what actually was the catalyst to create the world’s largest wildlife overpass. For people that don’t think images can change the world or help and be a catalyst for positive changes, let me point you to Steve Winter’s image. It is memorable. You can’t forget it once you’ve looked at it. I think a lot of these images push all of us, as photographers, to become advocates. Steve has set up a great nonprofit that advocates for big cats around the world and the struggles they face.
For a lot of us, the truth is, as photographers, we are usually introverts. We’re usually shy. We like being behind the camera. I don’t enjoy being in the public eye, but once you take these powerful images, you realize these images and the stories give us voice, and we have to go and advocate for what we see. Yes, that’s one story, and there are so many more.
COWEN: The famous photo of the green-eyed girl from Afghanistan — what do you think of it?
VITALE: Well, now we’re hearing stories about the truth of that image and the woman who was the girl that was photographed. It’s an important lesson for photographers — especially when we’re photographing out of our own communities, out of our own cultures — to tread lightly, to understand where you are. Photography can be very powerful and give voice and amplify people’s stories. It can also be tremendously exploitative and colonial, and all of these horrific things come with photography.
I really pay attention, and it doesn’t matter where you are, but you need to take the time to first get the blessings of the people you’re photographing, let them understand why you’re there, what you’re doing, and be sensitive. That is an example of it. Maybe this is a wonderful photographer who took all these pictures that are iconic, but in this case, we’re hearing now the stories that it was traumatic for the girl that was photographed. It’s really important to understand that for anybody with a camera, that it can be a weapon in many ways and can be really exploitative.
A lot of cultures believe that photography takes a piece of their soul. Even the Samburu, the community I work in — they also say that photography can take a piece of our soul. When I’m working in places, I pay attention to these stories of the photographers that went before me, and I make sure that people really want me there. I need to know I have their permission. That is something all of us need to really reflect on and pay attention to.
COWEN: Susan Sontag once wrote about photography, and I quote, “It is mainly a social right, a defense against anxiety and a tool of power.” Do you agree or not?
VITALE: Absolutely. Absolutely. I also ask myself every time I’m taking a picture, “What gives me the right to be taking this picture?” I also believe it is important to ask this question. Who gets to take the picture is very important. Also, I work a lot right now to try to bring cameras to the communities that I spend a lot of time working in, so they can own their stories as well.
It’s not that I think it is wrong for outsiders to take pictures and tell stories. First of all, you need to make sure you have permission to be there. I think it’s important to have a multitude of viewpoints. Sometimes outsiders can give great perspective to a story, but you need to have the permission, the blessings of the community first and foremost.
I also ask, “Well, in today’s world with all of these platforms and ways of sharing stories, why shouldn’t the people whose stories you’re telling be able to tell their own stories?” I’m trying to do everything I can with my nonprofit to give the tools and give access. We need to hear the stories from everybody because the only way we’re going to create a more equitable world and get to a more balanced world is by having that multitude of voices and people sharing their own stories.
COWEN: Can National Geographic still have a major cultural footprint in a world with Instagram and other images.
VITALE: Is the question, do they?
COWEN: Can they, do they?
VITALE: Oh, I think they do. How many followers do they have? They do, and they need to really be careful with that. It’s a great responsibility, too, with that great power of reaching so many people. They’re an organization in great transition. They’ve been bought by Disney, and they need to really pay attention to where they’re going. I think they are trying to.
It’s important to differentiate between National Geographic Society and National Geographic. One is a nonprofit leg of it, and one is a for-profit side. I think that you will see slightly different missions and work coming out of both sides of that institution.
COWEN: Now, you’ve traveled to over a hundred countries, as I have also actually, and I’ve met quite a few people who have done that. So many of them insist to me that all they really want to do is relax. I never believe them. At the margin, what is it now you want to see more of?
VITALE: Well, I don’t want to relax. If you’re not feeling anxious about the state of the world right now, you have your head in the sand, and in some ways, I can understand wanting to put your head in the sand because it’s hard understanding what’s happening. I want to stay engaged. I think that there has never been a need to be engaged in the world. Walk towards the things that scare you. Embrace them, embrace fear, walk towards communities and people that you don’t understand.
I think, Tyler, you may know this, as somebody who’s had the privilege of traveling as much as you have, that we need more understanding, truly listening to each other and understanding the people and the things that are different than what we know. I do not want to relax right now. I want to empower others to share their own stories. I don’t need to travel as much anymore. I actually think that I can do a lot of work right here from home, and maybe my imprint on the world can be by supporting others to tell those stories.
I one day want to interview you. Is that possible because —
COWEN: Absolutely, anytime.
VITALE: All right. May I reverse that question and ask you, how do you feel?
COWEN: You mean about relaxing? I don’t ever want to relax. I would prefer to die with my boots on, as they say. Maybe at some point, my health will force my hand, but until then, I say full steam ahead.
VITALE: Absolutely, love it.
COWEN: Let’s say you had two free weeks gifted to you — doesn’t interrupt your work responsibilities — and a private plane — green, efficient, whatever. It will bring you where you want for two weeks. Where do you pick?
VITALE: I let the stories guide me, so it depends on what would be happening, where my work would be of greatest value. It’s usually the long-term stories, so I tell stories over time. I think stories need time to evolve, and it’s probably going to be back in northern Kenya. I think that we will see a northern white rhino baby in our lifetime, and I suspect it will be to get back there quickly to witness the birth of a northern white rhino baby. That’s my great hope.
COWEN: Wonderful, great. Who first spotted your talent and how did they see it?
VITALE: That would be my professor, Rich Beckman, who not only spotted it but cultivated it, nurtured it. He has been my guide for now 35 years or more. Oh, more. Oh, that’s frightening. Really helped me see the opportunities for somebody that couldn’t get a job in the beginning because I wasn’t a proven talent. That would be him, and then there are so many people along the way who have trusted me, given me access to stories. Yes, there are a lot of names there, Tyler.
COWEN: If you couldn’t get a job at first, how is it you were hired? How did that happen?
VITALE: Oh, it was because it was in the world of that shift from film to digital where I could send in pictures, and very often people thought I was a man. In the beginning, I was able to do the work that I do because people didn’t really know that I was a woman. I would always get letters back, “Dear Sir.”
In the beginning, a lot of people told me I didn’t belong there. I shouldn’t be there. I’m so proud that we’ve made a great change in the last 20 years. We still have a ton of work to do, but I think that in today’s world, there are probably more female photographers and journalists out there graduating from schools than there are men. I’m glad about that because it changes the way the world looks, but we need to work harder to make it more equitable for a lot more diversity coming out of journalism school right now.
COWEN: You must meet plenty of young photographers. Obviously, you look at their photographs. But when you meet them, think about them, what are the non-obvious qualities you look for, for who could be important? Obviously, they should have a good work ethic, but what would be non-obvious? What gets you excited?
VITALE: Ethics and empathy. Sometimes, it’s the really shy people that may not have a lot of self-confidence. I recognize who I was when I started and realize that we all have great capacity within ourselves. I was written off in the beginning because I was so shy, and people didn’t think I had what it took.
Actually, those are the people that I want in the field. The sensitive souls, the people who are not thinking it’s about them. They don’t have large egos. I actually want them out in the world, telling the stories. I am the underdog. I’m always getting behind the underdogs in the world.
COWEN: I sometimes say that introverts make the best extroverts. But how did you move from being so shy, by your own account, to now, what at least superficially seems to be not shy at all?
VITALE: I think it was being allowed to tell the stories and then realizing that people wanted to hear the story. I didn’t really get a strong voice until very recently, when I was asked to become a speaker. I think that the first few talks that I gave were terrible, but then with a little bit of confidence and realizing the beauty in these stories and the power of sharing them, that it could inspire so many other people. To remember that it was never about me, that I’m just the messenger — that gave me great confidence. It was actually when I was being forced to get on stage and get in front of the camera — that’s where I really got my confidence.
COWEN: Final question. What is it you will do next?
VITALE: Oh, I have many projects, but we’re launching our next campaign to support getting elephants that were orphaned back into the wild, so I’m launching that. I have a film also that’s going to be opening at the American Museum of Natural History in New York as part of their elephant exhibition. Next work is all around elephants and, of course, the northern white rhino. I keep going back for that.
COWEN: Ami Vitale, thank you very much. For all our listeners and readers, please visit Ami’s homepage. Just Google Ami Vitale — that’s A-M-I. There you will find references to her books, her movies, her photographs, and also her new nonprofit. Ami, thank you.
VITALE: Thank you so much, Tyler.