Nat Geo Photographer Ami Vitale on Photographing the Last White Rhinos

Photographer and filmmaker Ami Vitale and online fundraising platform Omaze are offering you an amazing opportunity.

“…the real secret is understanding that it’s not only about making pretty images. A lot of people can do that,” says award winning Nat Geo photographer Ami Vitale about creating photos that really move the world. “The real secret to powerful photography is the ability to not just make a beautiful image but make an image with meaning. It must have a story too.” In fact, Ami is teaming up with Omaze to help train the next generation of photographers on how to do this and to make sure everyone is aware of just how much the world’s wildlife is being threatened.

In 2018, Ami was put into the spotlight for her image of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino alive on the planet. She documented the heartbreaking final moments leading to his passing, signaling the end of an ancient species.. “There are no words to adequately express the profound grief I felt then and still feel today,” she says when asked about the experience. Whilst discussing where the journey sat in terms of her career and life, Ami said, “It’s one of the most painful but important moments I have ever witnessed.”

She has teamed up with Omaze, and until March 28th 2019 they’re giving one lucky winner the opportunity to be flown to Kenya to join Ami at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy where they will get to meet the last two living female northern white rhinos. To enter, it starts with a simple $10 donation to the cause which Ami speaks of in the video below. In addition to the winner getting the privilege to meet and feed the rhinos, they’ll also have the opportunity to track lions and go on fun nighttime safari drives – which is why Ami says, “it’s the trip of a lifetime.”

 

Ahead of the safari, we spoke to Ami in more detail to discuss her life as a storyteller and to find out more about what the winner of this amazing and important campaign can expect from the experience.

Phoblographer: Photojournalism is extremely demanding. What are the positive aspects of the work that you most enjoy?

AV: It’s an incredible privilege to continue to learn so much about this world, to be able to bear witness and hopefully remind all of us how connected we are to one another. The more I see, the more I understand that everything we do impacts all life on this planet.

What keeps me going is believing that we have a great responsibility, an obligation, to illuminate the things that unite us as human beings rather than simply emphasize our differences. We can not afford to view the world through an optic of fear and hate because if we only tell stories through our own paradigm of values, we justify the existing divisions in our world. I believe that change will never happen unless we have empathy for those who have a different viewpoint than our own. The way to common ground is by seeing ourselves in others.

Phoblographer: Going back to how close you get to the animals, how does it feel to be able to have such a meaningful and close relationship with the wildlife?

AV: It’s incredible to be able to observe and learn the behavior of so many species we coexist with but it is also about respect and keeping a healthy distance and allowing them to be truly wild. Also, these stories are not just about wildlife. They are really about all of us, our HOME and our future. We are in an intricate web and I use nature as the foil to talk about our wildlife and our future but the stories are always about us. I also believe what happens next is in all of our hands. We have the ability to ignite action and inspire creative solutions to shape the world we want to live in. I hope we can continue to collectively shine a light on those who are caring for the environment in all its forms – from glaciers to deserts, to elephants to the tiniest of ants that inhabit the earth. Our future depends on all of them and us too.

“What keeps me going is believing that we have a great responsibility, an obligation, to illuminate the things that unite us as human beings rather than simply emphasize our differences.”

Phoblographer: As someone who is highly decorated and has produced work that has been seen all over the world, can you tell us what you feel makes for a strong, stand-alone photograph within your field?

AV: Photography is powerful. It transcends languages. But the real secret is understanding that it’s not only about making pretty images. A lot of people can do that. Telling stories with images is where the real craft and skills come in. It can amplify others’ voices and has this instant ability to connect people but it needs to communicate meaning.

Phoblographer: If you look back to when you first started photographing wild animals, and to the photographer you are today, what would you say you do most differently?

AV: I don’t think I approach much of my work differently but my relationships have grown deeper with all the people I work with. I spend years, sometimes decades in the same communities. Going deep and spending time on a story creates trust and access to unique situations.

“But the real secret is understanding that it’s not only about making pretty images. Anyone can do that.”

While I do travel and witness extraordinary things, it’s not simply about jetting off to exotic places. The magic really begins when I stay in one place, often years to get beyond the surface. I found my voice by first listening and then talking about the things that connect us all. I see the best and worst of humanity and the magnificence of this planet. My day to day is never the same and this past year I’ve been on the road working in over 30 countries and home for just 20 days in a year.

Phoblographer: You’ve traveled to over 100 countries, making countless photographs along the way. Where does this photograph of Sudan sit in terms of meaning and importance to you?

AV: It’s one of the most painful but important moments I have ever witnessed.

Phoblographer: Were there any particularly big, literal life-changing moments that you’ve had along the way?

AV: Sudan’s passing was certainly one of the most life-changing moments. I knew it was coming but nothing can prepare you for watching the last of something die. With seven billion of us, nature has a huge role to play. When we see ourselves as part of the landscape and part of nature, then saving nature is really about saving ourselves.

“While I do travel and witness extraordinary things, it’s not simply about jetting off to exotic places. The magic really begins when I stay in one place, often years to get beyond the surface. I found my voice by first listening and then talking about the things that connect us all. I see the best and worst of humanity and the magnificence of this planet.”

Phoblographer: From your encounters, can you relate to us a bit about the personalities of the two Rhinos?

AV: I don’t want to anthropomorphize these gentle, hulking creatures but you can definitely see their relationship to one another and that these are ancient sentient creatures. It’s humbling to be able to get this close to them. Fatu is the daughter and Najin is the granddaughter of Sudan.

Phoblographer: Sudan’s final day was an emotional time for everyone involved, including yourself. As a photographer, how do you approach a moment like that?

AV: I approach moments like these with complete reverence. There are no words to adequately express the profound grief I felt then and still feel today.

The story of Sudan began nine years ago, after I heard about a plan to airlift four of the world’s last northern white rhinos from a zoo in the Czech Republic to Kenya. It was a desperate, last-ditch effort to save a species. At the time, there were only eight of these rhinos left, all living in captivity. When I saw this gentle, hulking creature in the Czech snow, surrounded by smokestacks and humanity, it seemed so unfair. He looked ancient, part of a species that has lived on this planet for millions of years, yet could not survive humanity.

“Photography is powerful. It transcends languages. It has become a tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures, communities, and countries; a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share.”

Sudan and three other rhinos left the Dvůr Králové Zoo on a cold night in December 2009. They were brought to move “freely” on the Kenyan savannas at Ol Pejeta. The hope was to breed them. The air, water and food—not to mention room to roam—might stimulate them, experts thought. The offspring could then be used to repopulate Africa. Failing that, they would be cross-bred with southern white rhinos to preserve the genes.

Moments before he died, Sudan was surrounded by the people who loved and committed their lives to protecting him. They spent more time him than their own children. I gave Sudan one last scratch on his ear. He leaned his heavy head into mine and the skies opened up just as they had when he arrived here nine years ago. All was silent except for one go-away-bird and the quiet muffled sobbing of those who loved him.

 

Poaching is not slowing down. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that if the killing continues, these rhinos—along with elephants and a host of lesser known plains animals—will be functionally extinct in our lifetime.The plight of wildlife and the conflict between poachers and increasingly militarized rangers has received much-needed attention. But very little has been said about the indigenous communities on the front lines of the poaching wars, and the incredible work being done to strengthen them. We often forget that the best protectors of these landscapes are the local communities. Their efforts are ultimately the best immunization against forces that threaten both their wildlife and way of life. My hope is that Sudan’s legacy serves as a catalyst to awaken humanity to this reality.

Sudan’s death could mean the extinction of his species. There is a good chance that like the northern white rhinos, a whole host of other lesser known species will eclipse into myth, like unicorns. But if there is meaning in Sudan’s passing, it’s that all hope is not lost. This can be our wake-up call. In a world of more than seven billion people, we must see ourselves as part of the landscape. Our fate is linked to the fate of all these animals.

“Moments before he died, Sudan was surrounded by the people who loved and committed their lives to protecting him. They spent more time him than their own children.”

Phoblographer: Did you ever imagine such a worldwide response to both the story and your photograph?

AV: Yes. I did. We are witnessing extinction on our watch and it’s horrifying to see how we are committing future generations to eternal poverty.

Phoblographer: The winners also get to go on a trek with Chimps and Lions. To give folks a bit more insight than what they might have seen someplace like Planet Earth, what are traits you’ve noticed about these animals that winners should really look for when photographing them?

AV: Respect. Always respect. Getting close, without interfering with their biology and conservation is always challenging. Working with wild animals is very different than working with domestic animals. This is part of what I will discuss in the workshop.

Phoblographer: Winners get a new Nikon Z6 and a 24-70mm f4. That means you’re getting really close! When you’re up close and personal with animals like that, what should one always keep in mind when using those focal lengths?

AV: It’s important to stay calm and have respect and understanding when photographing wild animals. That is part of why the workshop is so special.

Phoblographer: You’re working with Omaze to put together a once in a lifetime experience for folks to be able to get up close and personal with the rhinos in an effort to helps more folks better understand conservation efforts. From my side of the Editor’s Desk, I see that social media and the fact that our minds are bombarded by so much extra content from algorithms unfortunately make people pay attention less to the stories that are really important. Besides these interpersonal experiences that folks like you who are on the front see first hand, what do you think we should all be doing to remind folks that things like this are happening every day and we need to strengthen conservation efforts?

AV: I don’t know much about algorithms but I do know that people are smart. Most of us know immediately when we are being sold something versus when we are being told an authentic truth that we all recognize.

Phoblographer: How can people use their photography to further help this mission?

“But if there is meaning in Sudan’s passing, it’s that all hope is not lost. This can be our wake-up call. “

AV: Sharing matters. Get involved. It’s important that EVERY one of us be a messenger. Being the VOICE for this planet matters. There is a good chance that the rhinos and a whole host of species will eclipse into myth, like unicorns.So what must we do? What happens next is in all of our hands. If more people are involved, then, absolutely, we’ll come up with solutions. Everyone has the capacity to make an impact simply by making your voice heard and in the choices of how we live. The truth of the matter is very, very few people are actually engaged in trying to care about the fate of our planet. Getting engaged really does matter. So does creativity and expression. We have the choice and it begins by first falling in love and then, having the courage to make a difference.

The challenges are formidable but no time in human history has there been a greater awareness and opportunity for transformation. People are smart. We can figure this out. If more people are involved, then, absolutely, we’ll come up with more honed solutions. Everyone has the capacity to make an impact simply by making your voice heard and in the choices of how we live. The truth of the matter is very, very few people are actually engaged in trying to care about the fate of our planet. The messenger matters as much as the message. It’s important that EVERY one of us be that messenger. don’t sit this one out. It’s our choice whether to become the greatest human tragedy or a model for the future. Getting engaged really does matter. So does creativity and expression. We have the choice and it begins by first falling in love and then, having the courage to make a difference.

 

Phoblographer: For the lucky winner, what skills and knowledge can they expect to take away from joining you on the safari?

AV: Being able to witness these creatures up close is something very special that most people will never have the opportunity to do. Photographically, it will be a mix of technical but also learning about conservation and visual storytelling.

To have a chance of joining her, both Ami and Omaze are asking for just a small donation of $10 to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the organization doing wonderful work to protect the two female white rhinos and other wildlife. Full details and entry to the competition can be found on the Omaze website.