How Ami Vitale Built Support for Her Long-Term Photo Project

November 17, 2015

By Conor Risch

Ami Vitale

Ami Vitale.

Ami Vitale’s long-term project about wildlife conservation in Northern Kenya began with a story that she had trouble getting editors interested in. In 2009, conservationists were moving four of the last northern white rhinoceroses on the planet from a Czech Republic zoo to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Vitale, who is now a contract photographer for National Geographic, had to cobble together the funds to cover the story because “in the beginning, most editors thought the move was not visual enough for a photo essay.”

After learning more about the struggle between local conservation groups and poachers during that first trip, Vitale decided to pour her own resources into return visits and delve deeper into the story. She’s since partnered with the Nature Conservancy, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and the Northern Rangelands Trust; has run a successful crowdfunding campaign; won a World Press Photo award; and has built a community of more than 320,000 Instagram followers. Assignments, speaking engagements and other opportunities have followed as well, she says. Here, Vitale shares advice for creating support for a long-term project.

Invest Early in the Project

It often takes a personal investment of time and money to lay the groundwork for a long-term project, Vitale says. “It takes time to even understand what the story is and how to tell it in a compelling way, so in the beginning I usually have to fund the work myself,” she explains. The advantage of starting the project yourself is that you “have intellectual independence and don’t have the pressure of what a magazine or audience wants to see.”

Develop Relationships with Key Stakeholders

One of the non-profits Vitale worked with early on distrusted all media because of bad experiences they’d had in the past. Part of building trust is “giving something back,” Vitale says. She identified Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Northern Rangelands Trust as organizations that could help her, and thought about how she could help them with the work they were already doing. “They had an amazing story, and I knew there was an angle that was positive and could motivate action,” she says.

“I have helped them build their own social media followings. They tell me that my photos have brought in new donors and visitors to their conservancy. It’s made a tangible difference financially and created more awareness about their important work. Recently, I had a print drive that raised over $8,000 for them.”

Find Stories that are Different

“In conservation, and frankly in many stories of conflict, we often sensationalize and leave out the complexities of the the story,” Vitale says. “For example, in Northern Kenya, the story is: It’s a war zone, it’s dangerous and look at these horrible people who are massacring the wildlife.” Vitale has chosen to tell positive stories about the work locals are doing to protect the animals. “I want people to understand how complex these stories are and also give them something tangible that they can do in their own lives that will make a difference,” she says. “I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I think everything is fine, but I do believe there are some hopeful signs. It completely inspired me once I started seeing the stories firsthand, met the people involved [in protecting the animals], and witnessed their dedication.”

Vitale says that finding these stories helped engage her audience. “I believe people are motivated to action when they see stories where things are progressing; it can’t just be about death and destruction. I don’t shy away from showing the bad stuff, but I use it as the beginning of the story, not inevitably as the end…. I think a planet with a hopeful and human story is more beautiful, and telling that story is more relatable.”

Build An Audience Around Your Project

Creating a body of work that tells a compelling story is the first step in a long-term documentary project. But, Vitale says, “Once you have finished the images and story, the real work has just begun.” A photojournalist’s ability to communicate with an audience directly through social media channels has altered what audiences expect from photographers, Vitale says. “In the past, there were clear lines drawn about the role of photographer/photojournalist and what we were supposed to do. ‘Advocacy’ was almost a dirty word for a reputable journalist. Today, we have the opportunity to engage directly with our audience, who almost expect more engagement and advocacy. It turns out, they don’t necessarily want us to be the proverbial ‘fly on the wall.’ Observing is not enough. They really care about a lot of the stories we bring them and want us to do more and show them what they can do other than just look at pictures.”

© Ami Vitale

© Ami Vitale

Think About Consistency and Captions on Social Media

Social media can be incredibly effective, but it’s also time-consuming. Vitale counsels that photographers should “resist the urge to jump into every social media platform and instead select the platforms that are most relevant to your audience.” Instagram is one of Vitale’s primary tools. In just a year and a half, she’s built a following of more than 320,000. Consistency and captions have been vital to engaging followers, she says. Vitale posts every day to her Instagram feed, but is selective about the photos she shares. “Consistency is important both in what you post and how regularly you post,” says Vitale, who posts images shot on assignments, and certain personal images. “If you build a community around a human rights issue and suddenly start posting selfies, you will lose your audience. Post every day. Pick your best images and curate your site as you would [a story] for a magazine.”

About writing captions for Instagram photos, Vitale says, “Most people want to understand the story behind the image. One of the best examples I’ve seen is the content Randy Olson and writer Neil Shea have created for #Ngwatershedstories [about the ecosystem between northern Ethiopia and southern Kenya]. Together they have created something far more powerful than the sum of their individual work. They don’t worry that the captions are too long but rather think about how to tell a powerful story.”

Interact With Your Audience

People are more engaged when they feel they are part of a conversation, Vitale says. “So many of us broadcast only. It’s like we are standing on a podium, shouting our messages out. Speak to people one on one. Try not to constantly pitch your brand. This does not mean that you can’t sometimes promote your work. It just means that you need to engage with people and listen. Try not to let a statement go unanswered on your social media.”

Ask Your Audience to Get Involved

“Loving a photo alone is not enough to create change,” Vitale says. She encourages her audience to follow the organizations she works with and find ways to contribute to wildlife conservation. “It is so important that people and communities realize they can get involved and you need to give them ways to engage; I try to show them that photos are not only something to look at and admire. Tell them a story, get them involved, and help them see themselves in your story.”

Embrace Others Sharing Your Images

“Make it as easy as possible for people to share your work in whatever way they can, and don’t worry about people stealing [your photo],” Vitale says. “If it’s any good, they will rip it off. Embrace that. A repost on Instagram, or a Tweet with a call to action is actually helping your cause.”

Don’t Just Share Your Own Work

Vitale says it’s important to share “good, readable content” with your audience. “Build a steady pipeline of articles and things to share every day” on Facebook or Twitter, she advises. Vitale says it also helps to form alliances with organizations or individuals that can share your work and whose work you can share. She’s made connections through social media to key people and groups in the conservation field. “Find a way to tap into your audience’s energy and put them to work,” she says.

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