These Captivating Wildlife Photos Are on a Mission to Change the World
With Vital Impacts, photographer Ami Vitale is advancing conservation one print at a time.
When National Geographic photojournalist Ami Vitale first learned of the Trump administration’s 2018 plan to reverse the elephant tusk importation ban, she was outraged. Then she took action. “Without hesitating, that night I launched a print sale,” she recalls. “All the funds went to an elephant sanctuary in Kenya. In 10 days, we raised $50,000.”
She was surprised at the overwhelming monetary response, sure, but it only underlined what she already knew: Photographs are powerful. They’re not only beautiful to look at, but possess an ability to connect with people, to evoke emotion. And, ultimately—or, in this case, ideally—they can inspire activism. “It’s not just about selling prints, but when you buy a print, you get to see the work every single day [and] hopefully it helps make you think about things,” says the writer, lecturer (currently on tour), and award-winning conservation photographer. “I think art is a really powerful on-ramp to activism and getting people to care.”
During the height of the pandemic, when the usually peripatetic Vitale was grounded in Montana, she coped with quarantine the only way she knew how—by thinking about ways she could inspire conservation efforts. Along with her friend, visual journalist Eileen Mignoni, she launched the nonprofit Vital Impacts and revived the same print sale fundraising model that had proved so effective before. She gathered a few photographer friends—many of them fellow National Geographic superstars—and put their collective talents to work.
Sixty percent of the profits from each photograph sold benefit chosen conservationist causes —currently it’s Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots and the Vital Impacts Environmental Photograph Grant and Mentorship program—while 40% goes directly to the photographer. An obvious benefit? The purchaser gets to gaze at a stunning piece of art every day, one that likely has them dreaming about exploring the world’s most captivating natural wonders.
Say the word “conservation” enough times and you might notice people’s eyes begin to glaze over. But show them an image, and a visceral connection is sparked. “People just shut down,” says Vitale, confirming the roadblocks many environmental activists face while attempting to rally support. “We could be doing so much more to connect our hearts to science and to the mind.”
To date, Vital Impacts has raised $1.5 million for humanitarian causes. And coinciding with the current Winter Sale, open now through March 31, they’ve since added grants and a mentorship component to further fulfill their goals of reaching conservationists who might not otherwise have access to educational or financial resources. “We’re giving two $20,000 grants, and the top 50 applicants will become a part of a mentoring program that will last a year,” says Vitale.
The grant recipients will create a documentary focusing on solutions to environmental initiatives in their local communities. As for the mentoring portion, they already have heavy-hitters lined up to speak, like photographer and mountaineer Jimmy Chin and National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry. The deadline for applications is March 15.
That the grant recipients highlight local stories is an important aspect of the organization’s mission. Vitale feels passionately about putting storytelling tools in the hands of those living and working on the ground. She currently has a roster of 40 Kenyan conservationist mentees to whom she and a team impart knowledge about photography and video skills plus things like how to curate a picture into a cohesive story and ways to get their messages out there.
“Some of them are already amazing storytellers in the oral tradition, but now [they’re] able to bring back images to illustrate their stories,” says Vitale. “It’s been amazing for me to go into the world and tell stories I think are really important. But then I realize the communities are as important as the story itself. We need more voices, and frankly, the people living the stories every single day are the best voices to be telling these stories.” If you want to follow along, the group has created an Instagram account to showcase their efforts.
The Vital Impacts Winter print sale features an impressive roster spanning the likes of mentors Skerry and Chin along with portrait photographer Melanie Dunea, underwater photographer Christian Vizl, 2018 National Geographic Photo Contest grand prize winner Jassen Todorov, and a delightful shot in a Havana kitchen by award-winning photographer Joe McNally.
And, of course, Vitale herself. Her standouts include Kamera and Kilfi, depicting an endangered baby black rhino and his keeper, and Pandas Gone Wild, taken when she was following the breeding and rewilding efforts of China’s endangered Giant Pandas, of which there are only 2,000 left in the wild. (The urine-scented panda costume she had to wear to get close enough to take the photos landed her a spot on NPR’s How To Do Everything podcast, among other publications.)
There’s also a selection from ethologist and conservationist Jane Goodall, a woman so legendary that a picture of her is currently floating in space as part of NASA's Golden Record, a phonograph time capsule on the Voyager spacecraft. “She’s one of my biggest inspirations,” says Vitale. “I think about when I’ve been in the deepest darkest despair and I pick up her book and she just reminds you of how much power we all have inside ourselves and that we could all be doing more, in just such a beautiful way that’s not pointing fingers or making you feel guilty.”
It was Vitale’s co-founder Eileen Mignoni who thought to ask if Goodall had any pictures she would want to donate. “That is the best question,” says Vitale. “Has anybody even asked her that? Nobody’s ever asked Jane, ‘Do you take pictures?’”
She does. Among her selection in the sale is a stunning self-portrait taken in Gombe, Tanzania, looking out into the valley. “I was on my own, very high up in the hills, and I thought what a great photo this would make,” Goodall told Vital Impacts.
“She had to sort of figure out how to balance the tripod,” says Vitale. “There was nobody there. It’s not the digital days where you could go back and check if it was in focus.”
Goodall signed the photos, but also went a step further. “At the end of the first round of the print sale, she actually did a private Zoom call for all the photographers to thank them,” says Vitale. “If I had to name my favorite, this would be the one. I don’t have many heroes, but she would be one of them.”