Photojournalist documentary filmmaker and Nikon Ambassador Ami Vitale has travelled to more than 90 countries, bearing witness to violence and conflict, to shining a light on today’s most compelling wildlife and environmental stories.
Her photographs are commissioned by international publications like National Geographic magazine and her images have been exhibited around the world in museums and galleries. In this exclusive guest post, she reveals why she focuses on these subjects and also how she sees the potential of 360 and 170 degree photography in bringing her audience even closer to her causes.
“As a teenager, the second I had a camera in my hands I felt incredibly empowered to explore and engage with people in the world. It was like a passport and a tool to tell important stories and create awareness and understanding.
I don’t view photography as solely an adventure. Although I get to witness extraordinary things, it’s not simply about jetting off to exotic places. It takes time to understand each story and gain the trust of the people.
For example, I began my journey into the world of pandas back in 2013. After going to China multiple times, getting to know the people and learning to understand the pandas, this story captivated me. It’s hard to imagine but these animals were once as mythical and elusive as Bigfoot. They have been around for eight million years, but were only discovered within the last century. The first one was captured alive only in 1936.
For a long time, they were considered a relict species; drifting towards extinction. But now, there is a glimmer of hope as years of research are finally paying off. In a region where bad environmental news is common, China is performing a minor miracle. They are breeding pandas in captivity and releasing them into the wild. Their extensive efforts have recently gotten the panda off the endangered species list.
There were challenges as a photographer. How could I possibly create anything that might surprise our readers? The panda is an instantly recognisable creature, and everyone has seen many pictures of them.
Zoos pay millions for these panda “ambassadors” on loan from China and they never fail to attract a crowd. They are incredibly elusive and I used the Nikon D4S at ISO 2000 to get YeYe in this dark, rainy bamboo forest.
After just one generation in captivity, they forget all their natural instincts. Captive pandas need to be trained to be wild. One of the biggest threats is humanity. A captive panda slated for release into the wild should never see a human. So, all its human caretakers, scientists, and even this photographer must wear panda costumes to facilitate the illusion.
The potential of 360 and 170 degree cameras
I previously used traditional photography and filmmaking to tell the incredible story of the giant panda, but now I am exploring the potential of 360 and 170 degree cameras for the next generation of storytelling.
Along with my Nikon D4S, I took the KeyMission 360 and KeyMission 170 with me into the wilderness of Northern Kenya to tell the story of the plight of northern white rhinos and the people working to protect them.
Thousands of Northern white rhinos once roamed east and central Africa freely. Today if you can believe it, there are just three of these hulking, gentle creatures alive on the planet, protected round-the-clock by armed guards. Rhino horns have become so valuable that they are worth more than gold right now.
Much needed attention has been focused on the plight of wildlife, but very little has been said about the indigenous communities on the frontlines of the poaching wars. They hold the key to saving Africa’s great animals. Just like the panda, the best protectors of these animals are the people who live along side of them.
I’ve been working to tell this story for 7 years, first using still images, then making films using Nikon’s DSLR cameras and now using KeyMission cameras. With traditional photography, we created an object to be viewed. But with KeyMission 360 and KeyMission 170 we are creating an environment to be experienced.
What I love about the Key Mission cameras is the ability to bring everything into frame. In the past, filmmakers showed pristine landscapes without humanity but the truth is, nature is everywhere and so are people. Before, we framed the camera to leave people out of the story and presented the wild as something to just marvel at. Now, not only do you take in the incredible wildlife, you can’t ignore the humanity that exists right alongside it. And I think showing this gives us a way forward. A world where humans and wildlife can coexist.
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The most common challenge documenting these kinds of stories is the unforgiving terrain. It’s no place for finicky equipment. But like all my Nikon gear, this was never an issue. The cameras can handle a lot of abuse and not just from humans. How tough are these little guys? We weren’t afraid to put them right under elephants as they walked to the watering hole.
Ringo, the baby rhino (and when I say “Baby” rhino, we are talking about an 500 pound animal!) charged at them multiple times. We put them on the wings of air-planes and flew them low at 120 miles per hour. Then they went on Land Rovers and drove through river beds and still they held up!
These little cameras allow us to see the whole story. They make everyone’s point of view your point of view. Empathy gives us the ability to understand and share the feelings of others and that is what these cameras do.
The KeyMission 170, and the full KeyMission range will help set a new benchmark in filmmaking. They are the ultimate tool for creating awareness and understanding, a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share.