As a photographer, writer and filmmaker, Ami Vitale has spent her life traveling to remote places to tell stories that connect and inspire people.
“In the beginning, photography was my passport to learning and experiencing new cultures,” Ami said. “Now, it’s much more than that. Photography creates awareness and understanding across cultures, communities and countries.”
Throughout her career, she has traveled to more than 90 countries.
“Each time I visit a new community, it offers not just an opportunity to experience a new culture, but a chance to understand our commonalities rather than our obvious differences,” Ami said.
For those who are new to international travel, particularly traveling solo, what advice would you give them?
It was scary in the beginning, but I first traveled in my own backyard to neighborhoods that were very different from my own background. I developed all the skills I needed to travel in foreign places by creating friendships and trust in nearby communities. I think it’s important to learn empathy and how to relate to people before you set off to places where people don’t speak the same language.
When you go to a place for the first time, do you strike out on your own or opt for a guided tour?
Going on guided tours can be a great way to get to know a place. I’ve been doing this for so long that I like to travel on my own. I do a lot of research before I even get off the plane and, once there, I’m paying attention to the details of what is happening around me. One secret about when I travel to a new place for the first time: I like to go out in the morning rather than evening. There is the same beautiful light at sunrise but there’s a different energy about people starting their day.
How do you immerse yourself in a new culture?
Getting close and gaining trust of people requires time and understanding. I don’t view travel as solely an adventure. Although I get to witness extraordinary things, the magic really begins when I stay in a place and give myself enough time to gain insight and understanding. I would rather spend more time in one place than try to see it all. I don’t look at people as different or exotic. Rather, I focus on the things that unite and bind us. Finally, I use the camera not just as an extension of my eye but also as an extension of my heart.
Of the places you’ve traveled, which have been your favorite and why?
Wherever I am at the moment. The magic is how you see each place and making the most of every situation.
If I had to choose just one, early in my career I had the opportunity to visit the West African country of Guinea-Bissau, which was then—and still is—one of the poorest countries on Earth. What I encountered was not the Africa of war and famines and plagues, 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 as the majority of people on the planet live. To the women, I was totally useless. I had neither a baby nor a husband. I could barely cook. I couldn’t even get water out of the well without help. But they accepted me into their community, and once I was accepted and gained their trust, I realized that though my life in Guinea-Bissau was vastly different from that of the United States, the surprise was more in all the things that we shared rather than in our differences.
On my last evening there, 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.
What are three things you would never travel without?
My intuition, brains and building relationships before I even get off the plane. Once I land, I meet with leaders of the community where I plan to be and explain why I am there and wait to get their blessings. Once you have the blessings of the leaders, it travels quickly throughout the community and people don’t feel threatened by you. In terms of physical things, I bring a flashlight, a silk sleeping sheet that little bugs can’t crawl through and a good book!
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