Photographer Ami Vitale brings bush tales to Victoria

EXHIBITION
What: NatGeo Live with Ami Vitale: Rhinos, Rickshaws and Revolutions
Where: Royal Theatre
When: Tonight, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $39.50-$54.50, can be purchased online at rmts.bc.ca, by phone at 250-386-6121 or in person at the McPherson Box Office

Documentary photographer and filmmaker Ami Vitale spends more time in remote regions than she does at her home in Montana.

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That’s not unusual for journalists covering world events, but a world-weary Vitale figures she spent just three weeks at her Montana home in 2017, considerably less than what she would have liked. “And [those weeks] were not at one time,” Vitale said.

Between field shoots, workshops and speaking engagements, she dreams of the quiet of her Big Sky Country abode. “It is the antidote to all the insanity,” she said.

The Florida native will not be back in Montana for the foreseeable future, as she has made a career out of being in motion.

Vitale flew from Portland, Oregon, to Victoria on Tuesday to prepare for her Royal Theatre presentation, Rhinos, Rickshaws and Revolutions, which starts at 7 tonight. Vitale plans to talk about the relationship between humans and animals, particularly in India and Africa.

Vitale got to know elephants when she moved to India in 2001, weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York. It was there that she cemented her working relationship with Getty Images, one of the world’s top photo agencies. She has moved around in the years since, and is now a documentary photographer for National Geographic.

Nine years ago, her work with National Geographic sent her to Kenya. She quickly developed a love for the country and its people, and has become their champion, of sorts.

Vitale is especially passionate about the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary Community United for Elephants in northern Kenya, a project she calls the beginning of a transformation, in terms of how people relate to wild animals.

Orphaned elephants at the sanctuary are raised by Samburus, semi-nomadic people from the area who herd animals, with the ultimate goal of having the elephants rejoin their herds.

Images from Vitale’s National Geographic feature about the sanctuary, headlined Warriors Who Once Feared Elephants Now Protect Them, was chosen for the magazine’s Best Photos of 2017edition. “I’ve known about this since it was just about a dream that people laughed at and thought would never happen,” she said. “It has been such a privilege, because the community has invited me to be the person to tell their story.”

She is going back to film a documentary about the sanctuary, the first community-owned and operated elephant sanctuary in Africa. Vitale said she wanted to tell stories about humans, not just animals.

“Frankly, the way we film documentaries and look at the world, we always leave a lot out of the frame — mostly people. [Photographers] pretend that there’s the pristine world where there’s no people. Turn the camera around. Everybody is behind the camera, so let’s actually talk about the world in the way it really exists — with people in it.”

Vitale laughs at her reputation as “the elephant lady,” as she was once known as “the panda lady.” Though her years of research and experience with wild pandas resulted in her first book, Panda Love, The Secret Lives of Pandas, which is due in June, she has spent recent years researching and documenting elephants and rhinoceroses.

“Any time you start working on a project, people forget everything else that came before it,” Vitale said with a laugh.

“Now, all of a sudden, I’m the elephant expert. Before it was all pandas. That was all people could talk about.”

Prior to her panda and elephant excursions, Vitale had no nickname; there is nothing to joke about when you’re a news photographer covering the Kosovo conflict and strife at the Pakistani-Indian border.

She developed her fondness for environmental exploration after a successful career in hard news, which won her the International Photographer of the Year prize, the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Reporting and Magazine Photographer of the Year from the National Press Photographers Association in the United States.

When Vitale was a photojournalist working for the Associated Press, her priorities were different, she said.

“It was all about being timely. And my thinking nowadays is about making timeless work.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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