National Geographic photojournalist, explorer Ami Vitale visits College


Thursday, Nov. 9, the College of William and Mary’s Institute of Integrative Conservation, in partnership with the Muscarelle Museum of Art, hosted an event titled “Reframing the Narrative: An Evening with Ami Vitale” in Alan B. Miller Hall’s Brinkley Commons. The talk was also in collaboration with the Vital Impacts Student Speaker Series, part of the nonprofit Vital Impacts co-founded by Vitale and journalist and filmmaker Eileen Mignoni. Over 200 people attended the event, including College President Katherine Rowe and First Gentleman Bruce Jacobson.

Vitale is an award-winning National Geographic filmmaker, photographer and writer who hopes to share her philosophy of reframing stories to focus on the power of human ingenuity and storytelling. Recently, she won the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service and the Lucie Humanitarian Award in 2022. Vitale published her first book, “Panda Love: the Secret Lives of Pandas” in 2018. 

Executive Director of the IIC Dr. Robert Rose introduced Vitale, as well as the goal of the IIC to educate the next generation of conservationists. 

“Each academic year, the IIC presents a series of lectures and panels centered around biodiversity and conservation themes,” Rose said. “This year, we bring you events that explore conservation histories and hope. This series of events, including this evening’s event, examines the backgrounds of specific conservation challenges and looks at how changing perspectives, new technologies and approaches and new or newly embraced knowledges are broadening or challenging how we understand and talk about conservation.”

Rose’s introduction was followed by a land acknowledgment given by Chair of the IIC Student Leadership Council Malvika Shrimali ’24. Rose then introduced Vitale. 

“I see so much powerful work being done and hopeful stories, and I title this ‘Reframing the Narrative’ because I realized that stories are so important. They shape who we are as individuals, they shape who we are as societies,” Vitale said. 

Vitale continued her talk by showcasing various examples of her work that have contributed to her understanding of conservation, humanity and the future of the planet. She believes that though many stories of the environment have been bleak as of late, there are stories of solutions and hope that are not as commonly available or accessible to the general public. She also discussed how photography has contributed to her own self-confidence. 

“In the beginning of my career, I realized it was this wonderful tool for my own self-empowerment,” Vitale said. “It can be, when used correctly, a very powerful tool to amplify all of these very important stories and voices, and I realized that photography had helped me find my hidden superpower.”

Vitale began by telling a story about her time in Guinea-Bissau, covering one of her first stories after the country’s civil war ended in 1999. Though she anticipated to primarily find stories of trauma, she instead discovered stories of hope. Vitale told the story of Alio Balde, whom she met in Guinea-Bissau. Balde patiently took the time to teach her the local language spoken in the village of Dembel Jumpoa. She emphasized his patience and curiosity as a light during her travels. Vitale emphasized that though she has learned to help tell people’s stories, there is also a danger that comes when others think they understand someone else’s story. 

“I learned that when you push yourself out of your comfort zone, that place of discomfort, and it doesn’t have to be physical discomfort, but if you push yourself there, that’s where empathy comes,” Vitale said. “It is probably the most important tool all of us can have in this world.”

“There was this turning point when I began to ask myself — Were we contributing to this narrative that maybe fueled the conflict? Because there were a lot of other stories around us, but we weren’t telling any of those stories. We were focusing simply on violence,” Vitale said.

Over the next decade, however, Vitale would leave Guinea-Bissau and become a war photographer. Vitale has covered conflicts in Afghanistan, Gaza, Pakistan, Nepal and more. While in Gaza, she discussed an incident in which she almost died from a missile that hit a police station she was supposed to be inside of at the time. She used this story to reflect on the power of journalism. 

“There was this turning point when I began to ask myself — Were we contributing to this narrative that maybe fueled the conflict? Because there were a lot of other stories around us, but we weren’t telling any of those stories. We were focusing simply on violence,” Vitale said. 

After her time as a war photographer, Vitale eventually realized that there was an emphasis on the natural world in the backdrop of all of her work. This realization changed the course of Vitale’s career. To emphasize this, she told a story about her first time meeting an endangered Northern White Rhino in the Czech Republic on his way to a conservancy in Kenya. When she arrived in Africa, she realized that the species was to be under constant surveillance due to threats of poaching. 

“The value of their horn is worth more than gold — they are being poached to extinction,” Vitale said. “When I began this story, the focus was all on militarizing fighting the poachers. And I began to ask one simple question back in 2009 — What do the people living with the wildlife think? Do they care? Very little was being said about them. We often forget that it is the people living closest to these animals that can be the best protectors.”

Vitale discussed her increased focus on small communities making big changes, citing the impact of conservation efforts such as that of the Northern White Rhino. 

“Everywhere I go, I see people often with very little, making huge impacts on their communities and their planet,” Vitale said. “Today, in Kenya, because of a focus on local community conservation, stricter laws in place, the number of poaching instances has dramatically decreased.”

Sadly, the male rhino she had followed from the Czech Republic to Kenya passed away in 2018, with Vitale right by his side. She became emotional when speaking about this incident, as she essentially watched a species that had roamed the earth prior to humanity’s existence become virtually extinct. Though he was the last male of his species, Vitale discussed efforts to bring the species back through the insemination of Southern White Rhinos using frozen semen from the male and eggs from the two surviving female Northern White Rhinos. 

“The eerie stillness of that morning was broken only by the muffled sobs of the people who protected and cared for him. I think back often to this moment, and it is the silence that I remember most. It’s a haunting silence that I think seems to foreshadow what our world would be like without all these magnificent creatures,” Vitale said. 

The two other stories Vitale discussed were that of an elephant sanctuary in northern Kenya and a panda sanctuary in China. Both places shared a goal of rewilding these animals using various methods. Vitale took particular notice of the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, which began in 2016 and is the first community-owned sanctuary in Kenya. The sanctuary was the first in its community to hire indigenous women to be elephant keepers and became innovative during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Prior to the pandemic, the sanctuary shipped in expensive formula to raise the young elephants. Due to supply chain shortages during the pandemic, feeding the animals nearly became impossible. Because of the community’s innovation, they recognized that the diets of goats and elephants were nearly the same and began using goat milk as an alternative. Along with keeping the sanctuary alive, it also increased the survival rates of the elephants from 50% to 98%. Also, because local indigenous women were the ones responsible for goat milk, it allowed these women to open their first bank accounts and participate in the business of the sanctuary. 

“Now they have money for their children to go to school, for healthcare — the elephants are giving them agency,” Vitale said. “They always tell me, ‘It’s not us saving the elephants, the elephants are saving us.’”

Transitioning to pandas, Vitale discussed her time as part of a film crew that was documenting the release of the first female panda to be born in captivity. This led her to study the ways in which pandas in captivity are trained to return to the wild and the ways in which sanctuaries help them breed. 

“They have this tremendously successful breeding program,” Vitale said. “The biggest threat to pandas in the wild is human beings. So they should never be comfortable with humans.”

Vitale spoke about how she and the caretaker team were required to wear panda costumes in order to help prepare the animals for the outside world. They also had to be trained to respond to predator threats. Such efforts have, in part, fueled an increase in the panda population in the wild.

“What happens next is in all of our hands,” Vitale said. “And as we embark on this mission to save nature, there are extraordinary people doing incredible things, like many of you here. The truth is, every problem, whether it’s climate change, extinction, loss of forests — every one of those problems has incredible champions. The stories I shared with you are about people living on the frontlines of war, climate change, extinction, who refuse to let cataclysm define their future.” 

Vitale mentioned that grassroots conservation through art and storytelling has been a large priority of hers throughout her career, which inspired her to co-found Vital Impacts. She hopes to use that platform to amplify the voices of storytellers worldwide. Faculty Director for the IIC Dr. John Swaddle then invited the audience to ask Vitale questions.

“We have a whole mentoring program,” Vitale said. “We’re just connecting people to opportunities, and we have people all over the globe. There are so many stories where we immediately got their work into exhibitions, and more opportunities come every single day.”

One question asked Vitale about what her organization was doing to support marginalized people. Vitale mentioned that 40% of sales from Vital Impacts go back to marginalized, often indigenous storytellers. She also discussed the new Vital Impacts mentorship program, which is currently working with 50 mentees worldwide to make sure communities themselves have the tools to tell their stories. 

“We have a whole mentoring program,” Vitale said. “We’re just connecting people to opportunities, and we have people all over the globe. There are so many stories where we immediately got their work into exhibitions, and more opportunities come every single day.” 

A question from Helen Tiffin ’26 asked Vitale how she found her passion for photography and storytelling that launched her career. 

“It doesn’t all happen right away. It is really about commitment — sticking to something,” Vitale said. “Having that grit and embracing discomfort. Walk towards the things that scare you. If there’s one thing to take away – nothing’s easy. And if you do that, just wrap your arms around all the things and go into the world with empathy, tread lightly, and love in your heart.”

Tiffin mentioned that Vitale’s hard work and perseverance inspire her in a subject that she wants to pursue. 

“I was holding back tears almost the entire time,” Tiffin said. “Conservation and environment is just this North Star that I know I want to go to. To just see someone of her skill, someone who knows what she wants to do and is living it out – like I said, she is a superhero. I’ll remember this for a long time.”

Max Sarciaux ’26, a communications assistant for the IIC, also reflected on Vitale’s talk.

“Ami Vitale is super impressive, and the turnout was massive,” Sarciaux said. “This is probably the best turnout we’ve had for an IIC event. And in terms of the content of her presentation, it was just fascinating stuff, her images, just beautiful stories that go with them.”


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