0.0074° N, 37.0722° E
‘Kenya reminds us of all the wonder and magic of this world.’
Gems in this
World-respected, Montana-based photographer Ami Vitale has captured extraordinary scenes in more than 100 countries. Yet there’s one place that remains at the top of her list when it comes to creative inspiration: Northern Kenya.
Since her first visit to the region in 2009, the Nikon Ambassador and National Geographic photographer has returned regularly to immerse herself in the stories of heartbreak, but more importantly, in the stories of hope. It’s through this hope-filled lens that Ami then shares her compelling imagery of Northern Kenya. Now, with a strong connection to the community and the many conservation organizations there, Ami finds herself returning time and again. We chat to Ami about her lens on the world, her favorite spots to marvel at all living things and her top Travel Gems to explore in Northern Kenya.
On finding photography, and then the world
As a child I was painfully shy, gawky and introverted. I was afraid of people and that made it difficult to engage with the world around me. My parents did everything they could to give me more courage. They would put me in front of a camera, take me to dance classes and once even dressed me up as a lion — perhaps thinking I would find my courage that way. In spite of my parents’ good intentions, none of these things instilled me with confidence, but the day I first picked up a camera, everything changed. Looking through the viewfinder, I found a world full of wonder. Not only did photography enable me to see the world with fresh eyes, but it allowed me to shift attention away from myself and focus on others. My camera gave me the ability to share and amplify other people’s stories. Photography has a unique ability to transcend all languages and help us understand each other. It reminds us of our deep connections and can be used as a tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures; a tool for making sense of our commonalities in the world we share.
On taking the time to listen
Photography taught me that being an introvert, being quiet and shy, was not a weakness. Society tells us we’re supposed to be these other things — confident and engaging — which I was not. I learned that being an introvert was my hidden superpower. It allowed me to listen and observe more closely. There are beautiful stories out there, if you just take the time to listen. Photography has helped me realize that you have to slow down, because it takes time to truly hear and understand one another. Once you take the time to truly listen, it's deeply transformative.
On getting to know someone’s story
There's not one story that I seek to shine a light on. It's also not just the animals, it's actually other human beings as well. So often we go about the world with these pre-written narratives and scripts. We think we understand one another. We read everything, we do all of our research and know so much before we have even traveled to a different place. You do everything you can to learn about it, which is wonderful. But the danger in that is thinking you know somebody else's story.
On Vital Impacts
I launched the non-profit Vital Impacts to raise awareness and support for grassroots conservation efforts, as well as empower a new generation of visual storytellers. There are incredible indigenous voices that want to tell their own stories and only need the tools to do it. Vital Impacts uses storytelling and photography to create much-needed funding and awareness for the communities that are doing so much to protect habitats and wildlife.
‘There are beautiful stories out there, if you just take the time to listen.’
On looking at the bigger picture
I began my career covering war and the horrors of the world. After a decade, I realized a profound truth: I had been telling stories about people and the human condition, but the backdrop of each and every one of these stories was the natural world. In some cases it was the scarcity of basic resources, like water, and in others, it was the changing climate and loss of fertile lands. But what always drove conflict and human suffering were the demands placed on our ecosystem. Today my work is not just about people. It's not just about wildlife either. It's about how the destiny of both people and wildlife are intertwined, and how small and deeply interconnected our world is. I use nature as a tool to talk about our home — its past, its present and its future.
On your first trip to Northern Kenya
In 2009, I heard about a bold plan to take four of the last northern white rhinos from a European zoo and airlift them back to Africa. It was a desperate attempt to save an entire species. At the time, there were only eight northern white rhinos left in existence, all in captivity. The rhinos, it was hoped, would be stimulated by their ancestral habitat and room to roam. They would breed, and their offspring could be used to repopulate Africa. This was not to be and today only two northern white rhinos remain. The majestic creatures had survived for millions of years on this planet, but could not survive us. Sudan [the last male northern white rhino] was our wake-up call. If we see ourselves as part of the landscape, saving nature is really about saving ourselves. Hope is not lost. Thanks to an audacious plan orchestrated by the rescue project, there are now northern white rhino embryos made from the oocytes from Fatu, one of the last remaining rhinos, and genetic material from deceased males. They will be transferred into a surrogate southern white rhino mother in the near future, and the species may be saved from extinction.
On where to experience wildlife conservation
The plight of wildlife and the conflict between poachers and increasingly militarized rangers has received much-needed attention. But very little has been said about the indigenous communities on the front lines of the poaching wars, and the incredible work being done to strengthen them. We often forget that the best protectors of these landscapes are the local communities. Their efforts are ultimately the best immunization against forces that threaten both their wildlife and way of life. Northern Kenya has remarkable conservancies and communities where you can not only see wildlife, but visit the indigenous communities who are working so hard to protect these animals. Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki has the largest black rhino population in East Africa, as well as the last two northern white rhinos on the planet. From there you can travel north to Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy and visit the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, which is the first indigenous [Samburu] owned and run elephant sanctuary in all of Africa. They are also the only sanctuary that hires indigenous women to be elephant keepers.
‘I cannot go to Kenya without visiting both Ol Pejeta and Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy where Sarara Camp and Reteti are.’
On your connection to these grassroots organizations
I cannot go to Kenya without visiting Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy and Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, the first ever community-owned and run sanctuary in all of Africa. Rescued orphaned elephants are looked after by local keepers from the Samburu community and lovingly rehabilitated and raised, with the ultimate goal being to reintroduce them back into the wild. The sanctuary isn’t just about saving elephants; it’s about breaking down stereotypes and redefining wildlife management. When people realize that they can benefit from healthy elephant populations, they’re proud to take care of wildlife. Reteti is also empowering young Samburu women to be the first-ever women elephant keepers in all of Africa. At first, the community didn’t think there was a place for women in the workplace. Now, the success of these women elephant keepers is unlocking new possibilities and setting a powerful example for young girls hoping to pursue their dreams. It’s also changing how the community relates to elephants. Schoolchildren who have never seen an elephant before or who were afraid of elephants visit Reteti and experience these elephants up close. They then realize they can grow up to be a veterinarian or an elephant keeper.
On your tops spots to visit in Nairobi
One of my first stops would be to take a walk in the Karura Forest in Nairobi, and then visit the Nairobi Gallery for some artistic inspiration. Once you’ve built up an appetite, my go-to place to eat is the beit é selam restaurant, which means ‘place of peace’. It’s a reflection of Nairobi and influenced by the diversity of culinary accents spread across the African continent. On special occasions they also have live music!
On uncovering hidden gems
Within the Namunyak Conservancy [850,000 acres of pristine wilderness in the Matthews Mountain Range], lies the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary and Sarara Camp. This remote and dramatic landscape is also home to the local Samburu people. For many years, I have been using photography and filmmaking to tell the powerful stories of this community in Northern Kenya. I wanted to use other mediums and think about ways to inspire creativity and pride around protecting our planet and the creatures we coexist with. I collaborated with the artist Mantra to make a special rock painting hidden within the conservancy. The elders chose a rock that was once used by poachers to hide under. My concept was to create something from nature that was meaningful and ephemeral. The painting will not last forever, as it is painted using water-based paint, but the memory of what has been created in this community will always live on. Mantra’s larger-than-life art installation in the middle of nowhere has become famous, and people come from all over the world just to get a glimpse of it. I wanted to take the oldest form of storytelling and bring it back and celebrate the incredible work the community is doing.
‘I wanted to use other mediums and think about ways to inspire creativity and pride around protecting our planet and the creatures we coexist with. I collaborated with the artist Mantra to make a special rock painting hidden within the conservancy.’
On a memorable moment in Northern Kenya
In March 2018, I rushed to Kenya to witness Sudan, the last living male northern white rhino, being comforted by caretaker JoJo Wachira, in the moments before he passed away. I was there documenting it. That image represented both the worst and the best of humanity. In the image, Jojo was giving him a hug — this beautiful, majestic, huge creature leant in head-to-head, saying goodbye. It represented what humanity can be at our best. We have the choice and the future is in our hands, but it's up to us to take action. That picture shows the beautiful connection that we ultimately have with all of these creatures. Our fate is linked to the fate of animals. Without rhinos and elephants and other wildlife, we suffer more than the loss of ecosystem health. We suffer a loss of imagination, a loss of wonder, a loss of beautiful possibilities.
On being drawn to particular times of day
Light is one of the most important parts of great photography. The best time to photograph is one hour before the sun has risen, or one hour after it has set. They call that the blue hour — it gives these really cool blue, moody and emotional tones to the picture. After the sun has come up you get these warm orange-yellow tones that are so magical, especially if there is a lot of dust in the atmosphere. I prefer photographing into the sun, when it is low in the sky, so that it backlights everything. It’s magnificent.
On wise notions passed on from locals
Dorothy, one of my friends at the elephant sanctuary, once said that her grandmother and then her mother said, ‘Follow the elephants’. There are many interpretations, but I loved that as a metaphor, we should all follow the elephants. They are amazing creatures! They are incredibly quiet. I can be in a forest with an entire herd of elephants and if they want to disappear, they just disappear. They tread so lightly on this earth, and I just love this idea that we should all try to tread a little lighter and leave behind less impact.
‘That picture shows the beautiful connection that we ultimately have with all of these creatures. Our fate is linked to the fate of animals.’
On the feeling you get when you land in Kenya
I take my shoes off and walk in the sand and the soil. I don’t know why, but it’s almost like you can feel the ancient footsteps all around you. They say this is the cradle of humanity, and where it all began. I cry every single time I leave. I don't know how to explain it — you’re just deeply touched by something bigger than yourself. You begin to understand that we are part of this intricate web that has been woven over millions of years.
On the song that best represents Kenya to you
‘Kenya’ by David Nzomo. It’s an older rendition, but today, everyone in Kenya knows this song and often you will hear people singing it to welcome guests.
On a window or an aisle seat
If it’s a short flight I like the aisle, so I can get out quickly to my destination. But if it’s a long-haul crossing the ocean, I like to be next to the window so that I can observe. And it’s also really cozy to lean up against.
On Kenya in one word
Kenya reminds us of all the wonder and magic of this world. Wonder allows us to get beyond routine ways of thinking — it allows us to believe that we can fundamentally change the course we are currently on. When we experience wonder, everything changes, and we can't go back.