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
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.
Web Site: www.amivitale.com