Ami Vitale Interview

Ami Vitale’s journey as a photojournalist has taken her to more than 75 countries. She has witnessed civil unrest, poverty, destruction oflife, and unspeakable violence. But she has also experienced surreal beauty and the enduring power of the human spirit, and she is committed to highlighting the surprising and subtle similarities between cultures. I would characterize her emphasis as “covering communities that are under-reported in the mainstream press.”

Starting in 2000, she has lived in and documented life and conflict in West Africa, India, Czech Republic and Kosovo. As quoted in a 2003 interview by Susan Markisz for the Digital Journalist, Vitale’s process of living with the people she documents allows her to delve beneath the surface 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.”


Ami has recently devoted a fair amount of time to integrating video into her stories. She was kind enough to field some questions about her recent multimedia work.

Q1. Somewhere I read that you’re devoting time to develop your video skills. Almost all of your Mamtaz story is video, whereas some of your earlier multimedia work combined more stills with a bit of video. Are you moving toward video on your own, or are your clients requesting more/all video?

Vitale: The medium I work in is changing and video is now playing a much bigger role in what we do. Cameras like the one I carry can shoot HD video and it can enhance our abilities as storytellers. This is already playing a big role in my future but I don’t think I would have had the courage to take the leap into shooting video without one small exaggeration, to Nikon, when they called and asked if I knew anything about making videos. “Yes of course”, I replied instantly, knowing nothing about moving images or how to even operate the camera. I assumed I’d have time to learn before the shoot but was surprised when they sent the D300s camera only the night before my trip to India began. I frantically studied the manual on the 28 hour long journey and arrived terrified and wondering if I had just made the biggest mistake of my life. The following is the film I made there, an homage to India.

If I had not had the opportunity, I probably never would have made the leap but I’m so grateful I did. In a time when media is struggling and searching for a new path, I’m finding that I am busier than ever telling meaningful stories in new ways for a variety of outlets. Last year, I went back to school to study film and created my first documentary film which just premeired at the Jackson Hole Film Festival. I also am doing a variety of short films for new clients. It’s an exciting time to be a photographer and journalist and this new skill can create more opportunity for all of us. The old models of business are in crisis, but opportunities lie ahead. We must redefine ourselves as technolgies create more opportunities. I’ve moved into video on my own and my clients are definitely excited when I can offer this. I shoot both stills and videos on most assignments.

Q2. What type of gear are you using to capture video and audio in the field?

Vitale: Nikon D7000, a couple of lenses, the 24-70 and sometimes the 24mm tilt and shift perspective lens, I use a preamp made by Juicedlink, a Rodemic and lavs for interviews. I also use a tripod and sometimes take Goalzero Solar panels since I’m often in remote places without electricity.

Q3. How rigidly are you planning out your pieces? (For example, do you map out all the stills, video & audio you need and then methodically work off this “shot list”? Or do you collect images & sounds first, and then compose them into a story based on what you’ve collected? Or some combination of both?)

Vitale: I do create a story board and make a shot list but its not rigid. If I see something in the field I had not thought of, I’ll shoot it and make changes to the final script. Its very important to know what and why you are shooting. If you approach film making like a stills photographer, it does not work.

Q4. Do you tend to work solo or collaboratively – and which do you prefer?

Vitale: I tend to work on my own but my film on climate change was a collaboration and I was grateful for it. I prefer shooting on my own to gain intimacy and trust with my subjects but I like collaborating in the editing.

Q5. What are you finding most difficult and most interesting in multimedia?

Vitale: Audio is the most difficult piece for me and the most interesting because I have a lot to learn.

Q6. How do you want to distinguish your multimedia stories from run-of-the-mill work?

Vitale: I hope there is a sensitivity and artful sensibility that will set these films apart.

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