Photographers Biography art photography

A M I     V I T A L E    

Ami Vitale attended the University of North Carolina and took a course in International Studies, before working for Associated Press as a picture editor in New York and Washington, DC. She worked overtime on the picture desk to get enough money to make the break, initially basing herself in the Czech Republic, and working around Eastern Europe.

In 1995, she had visited her sister, then working for the Peace Corps in the tiny remote village of Dembel Jumpora in the east of Guinea Bissau. A grant in 2000 from the Alexia Foundation for World Peace, Inc enabled her to return there to photograph in 2001.

The opportunity led her to realize that she wanted to show how the ordinary people of the majority world live, and to promote a real understanding of other cultures. Vitale went intending to stay a couple of months, but ended up living in the village with the people there for 6 months. She stayed with a woman and her children in a mud hut, shared their lives, living, eating, sleeping as they did, and helped in their everyday tasks (finding an American education and upbringing had ill prepared her for many of these.)

Since Guinea Bissau, Vitale was based for several years in India, producing memorable work from Kashmir, Gujarat and elsewhere. One of her most surreal works is from idyllic Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir. The shikaras (gondolas) with their posts supporting colored roofs have featured in many travelogues, and she captures them perfectly, reflected in the mirror-perfect water, looking like some fleet of brightly decorated curiously rustic alien space fleet floating above the reflected clouds. Looking in them brings us down to earth with a jolt, as we see the khakis of the Indian border security force, seated guns ready to hand as they set of on patrol.

Now based in Barcelona, Vitale also has a contract with Getty Images, and has worked for a number of NGOs. Her pictures have appeared in magazines around the world, including the major US publications such as Geo, Time, The New York Times, Newsweek, National Geographic Adventure and more. Unsurprisingly she also has a very long list of awards, including the Canon Female Photojournalist Grant, World Press Photo, National Press Photographers Association, POY International and many other awards. One of them was a Magnum grant, given in honor of Inge Morath (1923-2002), the fine Austrian photojournalist.

Her Work:

There are rare moments when one is able to capture a vision of the past and a look into the future. I have been fortunate enough to glimpse a group from the nomadic Fulani tribe after they settled, became farmers and now struggle to adapt to a world that has thrust itself onto them in uncompromising ways in the West African country of Guinea Bissau.

The Fulani, who once crisscrossed the continent of Africa tending the precious herds of cattle, was a civilization whose renowned physical characteristic was its constant movement. The movement that they were accustomed to spun the threads of a rich social fabric of traditions and rituals, many of which continue to endure today.

This is the story of one Fulani family’s life; the age-old rites that persist and those that die in an Africa that few can ever imagine. Among the things that sets them apart from most other ethnic tribes in Guinea Bissau is that they are Muslim. Islamic traditions such as female and male circumcision, five prayer times a day, the Islamic calendar and multiple wives are just a few of the traditions that make up the structure of life in the village. Local beliefs and traditions have come together to produce a brand of Islam that is unique to its area and it’s people. From the belief of tree spirits to the use of traditional medicine or "voodoo", the mixing of cultures that took place centuries earlier have produced a society that blends a unique spiritual universe with the often brutal day to day existence of the physical world.

To an outsider the village may appear to be a place where people live simply and are struggling to survive. While part of this may be true, the social hierarchy and politics among members of the tribe are far more complex than any modern western society. The village is a place where people’s lives are caught up in a rigorous power struggle that is influenced by the past, the present, and the promise of the future. It is a place where the dead and unborn play powerful roles in the fate of the living.

In 2001, with the help of the Alexia foundation I was fortunate to witness this culture working from a calendar far different from our own. It was my hope to present a meaningful look into their lives to show the dignity and humor that exists in their struggle to provide for their children in a place that can be unforgiving to the human body and soul.

The Himalayan region of Kashmir, nestled between India and Pakistan has been called "a paradise on earth" ever since the 16th century when Mughal emperors discovered its pristine beauty and made it their summer capital. Indians took their annual pilgrimages to escape the heat of the oppressive, dusty plains and British colonizers found their way around a law that prohibited outsiders from owning land by building floating houseboats on the idyllic lakes. Today Kashmir is more famous for being the axis of relations between India and Pakistan, a “nuclear flashpoint” that could spark an unthinkable war in South Asia.

The conflict has eroded much that once defined Kashmir. Hindus and Muslims once shared neighborhoods, schools, and close friendships, but nearly all the Hindus fled Indian-governed Kashmir after being threatened by Muslim militants, and are now scattered across India. Sufism, which exerted a gentle influence on Kashmiri Islam for more than a dozen generations, has been gradually pushed aside by the fanatical Sunni Islam practiced by militants from Pakistan. For centuries, Kashmir’s Mughal gardens and wooden houseboats offered diversions to weary rulers. But leisure has vanished from Kashmir. No one visits, and fear has tainted the lives of those who make their homes amid its apple and apricot orchards, in its meadows and in the creases of its mountains.

I wandered briefly into the poetry of Kashmir in November of 2001 and could not let go. Whether trudging through the perfectly etched landscape that included rice fields cascading into the valleys like delicately carved staircases, sipping saffron tea in the warmth of a Kashmiri home or being cradled in the tranquility of a wooden shikara, a gondola style boat, on Dal Lake, this place filled me with affection. I wanted to understand Kashmir and delve below the glassy reflections in its still lakes. The mountains were mirrored perfectly until the oar hit the water, a crack rippled through the reflection and one began to sense that all is not what it seemed. Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir once bustled with life and laughter. Now it lies neglected and pockmarked with craters. Hotels have been turned into barracks, guns peek out behind broken glass windows and netting protects the bleary eyes soldiers from the frequent grenade attacks. The surrounding mountains, once lush and dotted with delightful Alpine cottages sit quietly as structures deteriorate and collapse. The poetry of this magnificent culture has degenerated into the language of mourning and everyone here is held hostage to the suffering. The gaping hole of years of conflict have been filled with the corpses of young men and those spaces that remain free lie waiting to devour still more.

These photographs are dedicated to all those who have died and to those that are living in the shadows of those deaths. It is my desire to give justice to the beauty, strength and suffering of Kashmir’s people and to the unique richness of their history and culture. I hope to inspire in others the feelings that Kashmir has given rise to myself, particularly the simultaneous apprehension of beauty and terror. I believe that all the inherent beauty will survive despite humanity’s ongoing attempts to control and destroy it. Because in this intricate place, where truth and fiction are sometimes inseparable, politics and poetry overlap, the pain is sometimes too great to bear, yet joy is still possible.

In February 2002 the city of Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat, once famous as the adopted home of Mahatma Gandhi, was the scene of some of the worst communal violence that India has seen in a decade. In retaliation for a gruesome attack by Muslims on a train carrying mainly Hindu pilgrims that left 59 dead, it sparked an orgy of violence that threatened the secular credentials of India. Mobs swarmed into Muslim communities and killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of men, women and children. The city burned as thousands fled their homes and the official death toll was over 1000, though estimates by human rights groups placed the figure much higher. The wounds from this man made tragedy will take a long time to heal as the bloodbath still continues on a smaller scale.

Ami Vitale
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