National Geo photojournalist speaking in Aspen about finding hope for Earth through her work |

National Geo photojournalist speaking in Aspen about finding hope for Earth through her work

A cub gets weighed at Bifengxia Panda Base in Sichuan Province, China. In the wild, once they’ve grown to adulthood, female pandas may weigh up to 220 pounds and males up to 250 pounds, and they’ll range from four to six feet long.
Ami Vitale/courtesy photo |


What: “Rhinos, Rickshaws and Revolutions, Ami Vitale: A Conflict Photographer’s Journey”

When: Wednesday, 6 p.m.

Where: Hotel Jerome

Why: Jessica Catto Dialogue series by ACES

Cost: Free

Ami Vitale spent the first 10 years of her career as a photojournalist dodging danger in war zones and covering conflicts around the world, and then a light bulb went off.

She decided she didn’t want to follow the usual media model of globetrotting to find the most violent, sensationalistic angles of every story. Instead, she wanted to take a deep dive into topics of her choice, fleshing out the context and exploring all sides. And, where applicable, show how indigenous people were working to save the world.

“The biggest story out there is not hopping around from conflict to conflict, it’s about the future of this planet and where we’re going,” Vitale said. “I feel like if you only turned on the news you would just see the very worst in humanity. And when you’re on the ground, you see the very best of humanity.

“I’m looking for hope spots, frankly.”

“The biggest story out there is not hopping around from conflict to conflict, it’s about the future of this planet and where we’re going.”Ami Vitale, Photojournalist

Vitale will discuss how her revelation reshaped her award-winning career Wednesday in “Rhinos, Rickshaws and Revolutions, Ami Vitale: A Conflict Photographer’s Journey.” Her free presentation is 2017’s installment of the Jessica Catto Dialogue presented annually by Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

Vitale has spent the most recent eight years of her career, including numerous assignments with National Geographic magazine, taking a deeper look into issues. For example, instead of covering poaching of wildlife in Kenya through the armed conflicts between poachers and guards, she looked at how indigenous people weighed in on the issue. The latest edition of National Geographic features a short story and photos by Vitale on how people in northern Kenya started the first community-owned and operated elephant sanctuary.

“They are the key to saving what’s left. I want to amplify their voices and stories,” Vitale said. “My perspective is you can throw all the money in the world at these problems, but it’s all about the communities living with wildlife.

“I think it’s the same in Aspen and the same in my own backyard in Montana. It’s the communities coming together to protect what’s left, and I think we need to shine a light on some of these success stories.”

Vitale finds stories she wants to work on and pitches them to editors of the publications she works with. She writes the stories, takes the photographs, shoots the film and virtual reality, and gives public presentations.

“I use every single tool and try to go deep into the story using multiple platforms rather than try to bounce around and try to tell several stories superficially,” she said.

One of her favorite stories included the challenge of finding a new angle while covering pandas, possibly the most recognized and photographed animal on the planet. Access was the big challenge. Every panda is closely guarded and watched in China. In addition, as cuddly as they look, the bears are dangerous.

For part of the assignment, she convinced Chinese authorities to let her suit up in a panda costume, scented with panda urine, to blend in, she said.

The results were extraordinary.

Vitale hopes her style of story telling inspires people.

“I don’t think the way we’ve reported things for the last century, frankly, I don’t know that that really helps people get engaged,” she said. “It doesn’t make anyone want to get out of bed in the morning if we just focus on the despair and the depressing pieces of this.”

“I also want to talk about solutions,” Vitale added. “What can we as individuals do? I really believe in the power of one individual, how much impact we all really have collectively. That’s what motivates me. I keep meeting, every place I go, the most astonishing people that bring me so much hope.”

That point will be a major theme in her presentation in Aspen. She wants to remind people what can be achieved and how they can have a voice.

“Now more than ever we need to hear some stories that remind us that we all have a role in protecting what’s left,” Vitale said.

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