Why Photos Should Be 'So Much More Than Beautiful'

Photographer Ami Vitale

Photographer Ami Vitale covers stories about culture, animals, and global issues with a thoughtful eye. Her work aims to engage viewer's emotions while informing them about global issues. As part of our "Through the Lens" series, we spoke with Vitale to find out what makes her tick.

What was the first picture you took that mattered to you?

I went to the West African country of Guinea Bissau and planned to stay a couple of weeks to tell a story about the aftermath of civil war. Those weeks turned into months—the months turned into a half a year. What I encountered was not the Africa of war and famines, nor was it the idealized world of safaris and exotic animals. It was something altogether different.

I spent my days learning Pulaar, the local language. I carried water, gathered firewood, and experienced life just as the majority of people on the planet [do]. To the women I was totally useless. I didn't have a baby or a husband. I could barely cook, and I couldn't get water out of the well.

I was shooting film so didn't know what kind of photographs I had made, but when I returned, these were the first images that really mattered to me. They conveyed a truth about this place that went beyond the dramatic headlines. And though my life was vastly different, that was not really surprising. In fact, it was expected. What was truly surprising were all the things that we shared. My last evening I sat with a group of children beneath a sea of stars talking into the night about my return home. One of the children, Alio, looked up and asked me if we had a moon in America. Whenever there's a full moon today, I still think of him. That was a turning point in my life, when I realized I wanted to spend my life working to highlight our commonalities rather than our differences.

Alio Balde scrubs his body in the West African country of Guinea Bissau.

If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?

I'd be lost. It's hard to imagine what else would bring me this kind of richness. I did have plans to go back to school to become a veterinarian if it didn't work as a photographer.

Who is your greatest influence?

The people I meet in my work. They are the real heroes and remind me how much good is left in this world.

What fuels your passion for photography?

In the beginning, photography was my passport to learning and experiencing new cultures. Now it's much more than that. It’s 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. Photography has this instant ability to connect people without language. You can look at an image and instantly feel something.

I’ve been on this mission to tell stories that connect and inspire people. I started my career working in conflict zones. I’d focus on bringing back the most dramatic images, and I realized quickly that we need more than that. When we truly understand each others stories, we are transformed, and no matter where you go, the joy of human emotions remains the same.

John Kamara tends to an endangered black rhinoceros at Kenya's Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

What is the perfect photograph?

I see lots of technically beautiful images. They are perfect in every way, but for me, it has to be so much more than just beautiful. The image needs to have soul. It needs to make me think and have meaning behind it. I also look at how images work together. It's not just one perfect photograph that matters. Visual storytelling is different from making a single, "perfect" image. The images must work together to create an understanding of a place and culture.

What is your most treasured possession in the field?

The camera and lens do not make the photo—the photographer does. While we may desire to have all the latest and greatest gadgets, for me, the most important thing is simplicity and empathy. Empathy is the wellspring of creativity.

A two month old giant panda cub is cared for at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center in Sichuan Province, China.

What is the most important advice you can give emerging photographers?

You’ve got to find a project you really care about and work on it for years. Make it yours. Make it unique. Don’t shoot what you think people are going to like. Shoot from your heart and find your own style and passion.

In our series "Through the Lens," we get to know the photographers behind some of the unforgettable images showcased on National Geographic.

Vitale’s work is featured in the August 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine. Check out more of her work here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.