Ami Vitale: In Focus
I really just wanted to talk about my beginnings to my own journey. And I'm actually one of the most unlikely people to be standing up here today, because if you knew me as a child, and even a teenager, I was incredibly, incredibly introverted, gawky, shy, and just afraid of the world. And my parents, bless their hearts, thought that maybe putting me in front of the camera, and dressing me up as a lion, might somehow give me courage, (audience laughing) but I never got my courage from being in front of the camera. Really, where I got my courage was the second I picked up a camera, I felt like superwoman. All of a sudden, I could go out and engage with people, and I had a reason to be there, and it just made the world a lot less scary. And then the more amazing thing which happened was after taking pictures. This is actually in Bangladesh, literally diving in to make a film about our changing climate, and it did give me these superpowers, really. When you put a camera in my hand, I turn...
into another human being, and the more amazing thing though was not that it empowered me, the most incredible thing was the power of storytelling. I mean, it is the oldest way of communicating. 40,000 years ago, on the rocks of on the caves and paintings, people were communicating and telling stories. And I think that is what drew me to this medium, because I realized that actually I can amplify other people's voices, and really I think connect people and across cultures and countries, and remind us of all the things that we have in common, and that's what really drew me in in the beginning. But today I want to talk about creativity and inspiration, and where does that come from for me. This is an image from a place called Kashmir, and at the time I was the only woman journalist working there in a very conservative culture. And it was very unusual for women to be here. And this was actually a terrible scene unfolding in front of us, and like everybody here I was so focused on the scene in front of us, that I got tunnel-vision. I had the camera pressed up against my face. I literally just didn't even turn around and see. And this was the image, which was right behind me, that I think really told the story of this place of Kashmir and how connected people are to their landscape. But like most things in life, we get so obsessed with one perspective, that we close ourself off to everything else that's happening around us, and sometimes the story is right there, like right next to you. But I guess that is my if you get one thing out of the talk today, it's just that. Turn around, get some fresh perspective, because tunnel-vision can be the death of creativity. And then I also want to talk about another this is another I get to do incredible things, like climb up on top of a glacier, also in Kashmir. And this was, I think, 13 or 14,000 feet. You can imagine it gets really cold at night. And I had planned to spend three nights on top of this glacier. So, I'm from Montana and I brought all my warm clothes, down sleeping bag, some food, and started up the mountain in just my T-shirt, and the cameras on my back. And I hired this porter named Subir to help me carry all my warm clothes and the food. And about half-way up the mountain, I'm looking I mean, there's tens of thousands of people, I'm like Subir is gone, disappeared. He took off with everything. (laughing) I mean, I had this paralyzing moment, where I just thought I know what it's like on top of a mountain at night, in just a T-shirt. And I just thought I think I might need to turn around now, and go back down. And then I looked around and I just thought if these people are doing it, I should too. And I kept going, climbed up to the top of the mountain and guess what? It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened. Why? Because that little bit of suffering, the cold that I felt, the all of that actually created empathy. It literally allowed me to feel what it was like to be one of those pilgrims, climbing up this mountain. And all of a sudden, I realized that is empathy is the most important skill or thing that we need to be frankly a human being, but to be a storyteller too. Empathy is the wellspring of creativity. It really all of a sudden, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, just a little bit, and stepping into the shoes of others is really the most important thing that we can do. And I think that it made me closer to these people, and it closed that distance between us. So, I wanna flash back. This was one of the first stories I ever did. I was still very much an amateur. And on a whim, I applied for this grant. It's the Alexia Foundation Grant for World Peace and Cultural Understanding, that's the full name. And I was still very much very green, and I just thought, oh, I'll apply for it, never in a million years thinking that I would get it. And much to my delight and sheer horror, I got it. And it was to go to this tiny country in west Africa called Guinea Bissau. I planned to stay for two weeks. I ended up living there for half a year, and I learned the language of Pulaar. It's the Fulani tribe. Actually when I packed my bags, I packed a hundred rolls of film, at that time, it wasn't digital, and malaria medicine and what else? And an English-Pulaar dictionary. And with a lot of trepidation, I got on the plane. Flew to Guinea Bissau and landed, and then I got to the capital, and I bought two chickens, and two big sacks of rice, and off I went into the center of the country. And what I discovered blew my mind. I mean, it was just nothing I had read about. I think we get two very distinct narratives about the whole continent of Africa in mainstream media. There's one perspective, and it is war, famine, plagues like Ebola, or you can go over and get the other perspective, which is you can go on a beautiful safari and see exotic animals. Now, both those narratives are true, they are, but I found a third narrative, which was so beautiful. It was people deeply connected to the natural world. They believed spirits lived inside this tree. I just I learned so much. And those weeks turned into months, and those months turned into half a year, and I got malaria. Everybody took care of me, I survived. More than that, I just I learned about the poetry and the beauty of this life. And I actually I stayed till the end of the dry season, when all the food ran out. And I remember all we had were those sacks of rice, that I brought with me, and we shared one bowl of rice every day with the I was sharing a house with these women and their children. And that's all we had, and that's when I really understood what hunger felt like, and I remember staring up at the little baby mangoes when they started growing. And every day, I'd ask the kids, okay, so how much longer till those mangoes ripen? I was dreaming about a mango. But it was they taught me so much. This is Halima, and and her first baby. And to the women, I was a complete mystery. They're like, how can you be in your early 20s, no husband, no children, and you don't even know how to get water out of the well. They couldn't believe that. And by the way, have you seen the women when they carry they look so graceful. Let me tell you what really happens. You start walking with this huge like 50 pound bucket on your head, and it starts gaining velocity. And literally by the time I was at the mud hut, I was just covered in water, and there was this much left. (audience laughing) But they were patient with me, and they took care of me, and they taught me so much. And there was just stories, and even in the language. And I think everywhere you go, people always when in the morning ask the same ritual of questions. How'd you sleep, how's your body? If you have children, how are the children? And then in this village Dun-bol-jam-pur, they would always ask one question at the end of that ritual, which was did you all wake up one-by-one or all together? And it took me a long time to figure that out. I was like what did they mean, what did they mean? And one day, I finally got it, because the children are all nestled up against you at night. And it means that if you all woke up together at once, something terrible happened. But if you woke up one-by-one, you woke up to the gentle rhythms of life. So, I just love that language even was this just really poetic beautiful way of understanding the culture, and that was their way of asking are you okay. And anyway, you can look at these pictures and it may look so different from this world that you all are in right now, but that's not what actually surprised me. The thing that really surprised me was how much we shared. And this is Alleo, he got a hold of my soap, and on my last night in Guinea Bissau, all the children were asking me a million questions about my return home to America. Do you have mangoes in America? Do you have cashews? And then Alleo looks up at this big, beautiful full moon, and he asked me, do you have a moon in America? And I think of him every time I see a full moon, and I really I love the moon as this metaphor. It's like this collective, third eye for all of us. And whether we believe it or understand it, we share the same planet. There's this oneness and And I knew when I left Guinea Bissau what my mission was. I knew that I wanted to talk about the stories that connect us. After that, I came back and I weirdly I don't know why, I became a war photographer. Mostly, because I thought that that's the way to tell powerful stories. I thought that those were the most powerful stories that needed to be told. And I went to places you may have heard of, like Afghanistan, to places that you may not have heard of, like Angola, which was already in its 26th year of a brutal civil war, four million people displaced. The world had turned their back on it. Believe me, there is very little meritocracy in death. And I pitched the story to all of these editors, and their eyes would kind of glaze over. And they said, "Amy, nobody cares." But I knew, I had a friend that was working there, and I was like, well, I care. And I went and ended up getting this story in media, all over the world, and I did feel like it's important to shine a light on the stories that are not always being told. And then I was actually sent to Gaza, during the second intifada, and when I arrived it was first it began with kids throwing rocks, and that quickly escalated into people dying. And I found myself in the middle of another brutal conflict, and I was asked to bring back the most violent images. And I did that, I got close to the action, so close to the action, that I almost died. If you look at the upper, right-hand side of that frame, that's actually a building being vaporized. And fortunately, as I was running to get inside this building, the batteries in my camera all dropped out. And in that moment, when I stopped and I'm picking all the batteries up, a helicopter with a missile comes out of nowhere, and just blows up that building. But I was actually heading right for it before that happened, so I was really lucky that day. I was just doing what I thought the audience wanted, and certainly I thought my editors wanted. And I had to ask myself at that point, were we unconsciously only telling one-half the story, at best, and and maybe was it even a lie, at worst, because there were plenty of other stories all around us. The stories that frankly allow us to relate to one another as human beings. The stories of love. This is I was walking down the street one day, and I heard music coming out of this building, and I wandered in. And there, this expression of love in the middle of all of this chaos really just captured my heart. And I just thought, why aren't we telling these stories too? These are the ones that allow us to see each other as just wanting the same things in life, as every human being does. And so this was a real turning point for me. And I just thought, why don't we show these kinds of images, too? I mean, do we just think that the good things, the things that connect us are somehow not worth publishing. Are they just too boring? I just wanted to offer a broader vision of what the world really looks like. And what would happen if we chose to illuminate the things that unite us as human beings, and not only emphasize our differences. And so after covering all these conflicts, I decided to go to storytellers paradise, India, the subcontinent of 300 million gods, and twice as many stories. And there were stories everywhere. It was my dream, I was in search of the land of Gandhi and yoga, and India is full of surprises. And it really is the storyteller's dream. And this is where I went from being close to the action to being close to people. And the one place that really captured my heart was this place called Kashmir, and it has been described since the 15th century as paradise on earth. It's set in the Himalayas. It is so beautiful, and it's also been described as, in the Guinness Book of World Records, the most militarized place on the planet, and the longest pending conflict. So, you had both these extremes, and this picture to me really illustrates that. You see the little hearts painted on these boats, they're meant for lovers and honeymooners and tourists, and they've been take over by soldiers, patrolling this lake for militancy. So, the story of Kashmir is basically India and Pakistan have been fighting over this piece of land since 1947, and it's never been resolved. And I ended up spending four years living here, and trying to go deeper and the one piece I always felt about it was that it was always described in these geopolitical terms, but the people were kind of always left out of the story. And this is a man, Mr. Wonderful. He was wonderful, he would bring me flowers every morning. I was living on a houseboat, and actually moving around to different houseboats for safety reasons. But I get to witness these extraordinary things, and people let me into their lives. And how do you do that? It's really it just takes time and trust. And I think that for everybody that wants to go out and tell stories, my one bit of advice is spend time in one place, and you do not have to travel around the world. I mean, though I do, I actually end up spending years on every single story, really go deep, because that's when the magic happens. That's when people start really showing you the truth or a truth. There's always many different kinds of truth, but in Kashmir a lot of doors closed to me. It's a conservative, Islamic culture, and and so I just simply wasn't allowed to a lot of things. But I also realized when those doors closed, that's just opportunity for something else, and that was to the women's world, because at the time there were no women journalists really working there. And so I committed to this place and really tried to shine a light on their story. Ladies are not allowed to sit after 6:30 pm, so there was I was there in a really scary time as well and and there were militants putting posters up, all over the capitol, which said, "Any women who does not wear a burka "will have acid thrown on her face." And I was terrified and you have to understand wearing burkas was totally it. It's not Afghanistan. Women didn't wear burkas here, not the general public. And so I thought how do I illustrate this? So, I went to a tailor's shop, and I found this woman buying a burka, and I asked to take her picture. And after a couple of minutes, she leans over and she whispers to me in English and says, I think the tailors made this up as a way of drumming up more business. (laughing) My God, she's making a joke in the most terrifying moment of her life. And guess what? It doesn't matter what you look like or what you're wearing, there is this universal truth that laughter connects us all, jokes, and just the resiliency of people. And I feel like it is so important to shine a light on these conflicts, and humanize those caught in the middle. But we also need to take time to lift that veil, and give a broader vision of what this world really looks like. And if you don't lift that veil, and if you only sit behind your television screen, looking at the world, it looks like this terrifying place, and that somehow people over there are different than us. But I just wanna say everywhere I go, they're not. (chuckling) And after covering conflict after conflict after conflict for almost a decade, I was really burned out and depressed. And I I took a little break, and in that moment that's when I had this great epiphany, and I realized that actually all those conflicts are always connected to our natural resources, and they're really dependent on nature for their outcome, and often are driving these conflicts. And I really made this 180 from really these people-driven stories to realizing that the biggest story out there right now is the natural world, and everything's connected to it. And so I have totally shifted my trajectory in the work that I do, and it kind of began in 2009, with this beautiful, magnificent, ancient creature. This is a northern white rhino. And I heard about plans, they were taking four of them from a zoo in snowy Czech Republic and flying them back to Africa, in this last ditch effort to save this entire species, because at the time there were only eight of them, all in zoos, that was it. And it broke my heart when I met this gentle, hulking creature, and I just I couldn't believe it. This is what we think wildlife, roaming the open plains of Africa looks like, but this is actually what it looks like. They have to be guarded around the clock, 24/7, by heavily militarized men, because the value of their horn is worth more than gold right now. We are witnessing the poaching is not slowing down. We're witnessing extinction on our watch right now. And actually just in March, I've been following this story and visiting. This is these were the last four northern white rhinos, and they're at a conservancy in Kenya called Ol Pejeta. And then on March 18th, my friends at Ol Pejeta said, "Get on a plane, get here now. "Sudan, the last northern-white male is "he's gonna pass away." And so I rushed over. I knew that he was getting he was getting sicker and sicker, and it was really one of the most breaking moments. He's such a gentle, beautiful soul. He actually this is Joseph Wachir, who's one of his keepers. And he just leaned right in, and they loved him as much as they love their own children. They spend more time with them than their own children. And they're just the most committed people. And at the moment Sudan passed away, all you could hear was the gentle it was totally silent, except for people crying, and the sounds of one bird, a go-away-bird chirping. And it was so heartbreaking, and I just I guess to witness that I feel like if there's any meaning in the loss of the species, at the end of Sudan's life, it's that this can be our wake up call. In a world of seven billion people, we have to start seeing ourselves as part of the landscape, as something connected to it. Our fate is absolutely linked to the fate of these animals. And until we all realize that, that everything we eat and drink and wear, and everything in this room comes from nature, till we actually get that, we're I don't know, I think that I think that all hope is not lost though. But the next image is gonna be really graphic, but this is what extinction looks like, and it's not just the rhinos, it's the elephants. It's a whole host of lessor species, less charismatic species that don't get any attention, that are going extinct every single day. And the more I travel, the more I see, I realize, oh my God, it's all so connected in this intricate web, just like that web I talked about with Alleo in Guinea Bissau. We are in this web together. And I started thinking about this story, and just digging into it and thinking, and realizing, my God, all we do is focus on the militarization, like send more guys with guns. And I just felt like the most important piece of this story was always being left out. What about the indigenous people living with the wildlife? What do they think? And so it's the people there, they're the ones that really hold the key to saving what's left, and I just started understanding that there's another piece of this story that was being left out. And it turns out, they are their greatest protectors too. This is a wonderful man named Yussuf, sleeping with three orphaned baby black rhinos. It's a different species, but he's there. He was just there 12 hours a day, in tough, tough conditions. He'd get malaria, all the keepers. I mean, they're just amazing human beings. And there's all these incredible things happening in Kenya. This is Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. And these are Samburu warriors seeing a rhino for the first time in their lives. They're as mythical to them as bigfoot, because guess what even though despite being the most perfect habitat for these rhinos, they've become locally extinct in so many parts of Kenya. So, they were so excited to touch these rhinos and they they were like, oh, we thought that their skin would be soft like our cows, and we thought that their horn would be flexible like an elephant. And their dream actually came true, because they moved 11 of these rhinos to a conservancy, a brand new conservancy a few years ago, and brought them back to this place, where they had been extinct for almost 30 years. And they've already had three babies. And the amazing thing is you just start seeing the whole landscape healing. And once you bring one keystone species back, everything starts to thrive. And I believe it's important to talk about the challenges that we face on this planet, but we also have to shine a spotlight on these incredible people. This is Kamara and Kilifi, and they are really heroes to me, and I just decided just like the conflicts I was asked to cover 10 years before that, and asked only to focus on the violence, I just realized, nope, we're missing the most important piece. These stories that inspire us all, and remind us of what we can achieve. And then I wanna share another story that I know three of you in the audience have been here. (chuckling) This is a place called it's the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy, and these are Samburu warriors again, who who have coexisted quite uneasily with all this wildlife, and elephants in particular. But 25 years ago, a lot of the elephants were poached, almost they just disappear. When they start getting poached, elephants are super intelligent, and they go and find safer places. So, they fled and guess what? The whole landscape starts to erode. You need all these animals for the ecosystem to thrive. And so they're really nature's greatest engineers. And they rip up the trees and it allows grass to grow, and it creates this place where all wildlife can life. But the people were afraid the poaching was going on. And guess what happened? It's such a beautiful story. The community living there finally said, "We need to protect these animals." And they went from maybe coexisting uneasily to now becoming their greatest protectors. They created the first ever community, owned and run, elephant sanctuary in all of Africa. And what that means is they understand the value of the wildlife to them. And they when babies actually the poaching numbers have gone down. It's more about climate change now, because there are these wells. This is a well that wildlife use in the nighttime, and then in the daytime, people come with their livestock and use these same wells. But as the climate gets the drought gets longer and longer, the wells get deeper and deeper. And sometimes, a little baby elephant there's a little baby in there. They fall into the well. Now, in the past, people didn't know what to do. And they would either just leave them, or take the elephants out and that was it. Now, they know exactly who to call, and they call the sanctuary called Reteti. And I happened to be there during this rescue, and very often the elephants are reunited right there by the well with their mother and their own herd. They come back for them, and so the long wait begins by the well at night, and it was crazy, because you could hear the hyenas and the leopards just circling around us in the darkness, wanting to eat that little baby elephant. And that elephant, the imprinting had already begun. She knew to stick with us, that we were gonna take care of her, so she just stuck right there. Actually, it was haunting. She sounded almost human-like. She kept calling out into the night for her mother. And her mother never came, so after I think 36 hours or something like that, Joseph, the paramedic, decided it was time to take her to the sanctuary. She was getting very weak, but at least now there's a place for them to go. And the other piece of the story that I love is that it's the first sanctuary that hires indigenous women to take care of these elephants. And actually on my last trip in Kenya, these young Samburu guys walked for 12 hours, in the really harsh, dusty really a tough landscape, for 12 hours, to go to the sanctuary. And I see them, I'm like, what are you doing? They said, "We heard stories "that women were working with elephants. "We had to see it with our own eyes, we didn't believe it." And they just they could not believe it. And it's true, and what's happening is incredible, because it's just changing the whole dynamic. It's like this ripple effect, and so these women are incredible. I mean, so are the men working there, everybody is, but it's just changing the dynamic, and and I love this story, because it is this little oasis of hope. And you realize that one community with really no power, no money, they change the destiny of their own future, and it just makes me realize that the power of individuals it's really inspiring. And what's happening here at Reteti, without any fanfare at all, is nothing than the less than the beginnings of a transformation, in the way that these people relate to wild animals, that they long feared. It's so much more than just a story about elephants. It's actually a story about people. It's about all of us actually. It's about our home, it's about our future, and how deeply connected we all are to one another. I'm really just reminded of all the small impacts that we all have, we can have, and overcoming our fears, really, to one another and to wild animals. So, I'm gonna show a film. The other thing I wanted to say is Instagram is amazing. I really embraced it as a new tool for storytelling. And so for elephant day, I made a film that is on the Instagram TV. And I just wanted to reach other kind just reaching audiences in different ways. Typically, as filmmakers, we always shoot in horizontally, and so I just had to rethink and throw perfection out the door a little bit, and just really communicate with the audience, that's really the most important thing. So, I'm gonna play my video. (persevering music) I've been working in northern Kenya for almost a decade now, looking for these stories of hope, which is the story of the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. (elephants roaring) It is the first community-owned and run elephant sanctuary in all of Africa. And what this means is it's the community, the people living there, understanding that wildlife is so valuable to them. (speaking in foreign language) The goal of the sanctuary is actually to return the elephants back to the wild, because it's important that they're not really captive and kept inside enclosures. You definitely get right of way. (laughing) You're surrounded by a lot of very happy elees. These sentient giants are nature's greatest engineers. They voraciously eat the trees and the brush, and they keep the land open and grassy. These trunks have 44,000 muscles in them. The Samburu people, they understand the role that elephants play. And they went from being afraid of them to becoming their greatest protectors. It's actually a heartbreaking moment when a baby is orphaned from its mother and its own herd. (speaking foreign language) They arrive, sometimes, very vulnerable, sometimes traumatized, and often really on death's door. One of these rescues, we really didn't know if she was gonna make it, and I left. And I came back three months later. Look who we found! She smelled me and came charging out of the forest, with her trunk in the air, trumpeting. (gentle growling) She remembered me and I have to so tune in on Instagram (laughing) to see the whole story. Anyway, now this tribe is doing really well. And I miss them so. I cry every time I come home. It's amazing, elephants are a lot like people. And it took a long time for them to trust me. Shaba is the matriarch of all these elephants. And she used to be she sent two people to hospital, and really aggressive, and I knew it was really every time I go, it's interesting, because this last time I knew I was a part of the herd. She let me so close to all. All of the sudden everybody knew me. She knew my smells, and she reached this comfort level. It's just taking a long time, and I just think it's the same thing for people and wildlife. Everything takes time, and we just have to remember to go slow and commit. Commit to whatever it is that you're working on. I mean, it just it's all about that just sheer hard work, really, and and commitment. And I think that eventually things will yeah, you'll get access. The doors will open. And in the beginning, in very place I have to say, just like Shaba trying to kill me. I mean, every place you go in the beginning, people are naturally distrustful, and it's just the same with animals. And you just have to work through that. But I wanna wrap up with one of my favorite stories. Pandas, who doesn't love pandas? So, I was invited to be part of a foreign film crew to photograph. This is a panda named Hope, as she's taking her first trepid steps into the wild, forever. She was a captive-born panda, being sent back to the wild. And that's not an easy thing to do, so empathy. Again, I want to be empathetic to this panda, because she must have been scared leaving home forever. Look at her, doesn't she look scared? And so I wanted to hide behind a tree and I didn't want her to see me. And so the head of the panda program, who's affectionately called Papa Panda, saw me. He came running up and he gave me a big hug, and he said, "You are gonna get to hold two baby pandas. "Thank you so much for thinking of Hope." And President Obama, he only held one. (audience laughing) So, I got my two baby pandas and whole bumper crop laid out on a blanket. (audience aahing) Oh, it was ridiculous. Look at this little one trying to escape. And then this one just completely asleep. They were so naughty and sweet. (audience chuckling) I knew then that I had my in. I knew it, and so immediately I called National Geographic. I'm like, I have the best story, pandas! And they said, "No, thank you. "We did pandas eight years ago," because in Nat Geo time, eight years ago is like yesterday. So then that's what my job is. I've gotta convince them, how am I gonna make this story different. Today, honestly, it's not about traveling to the farthest reaches and going to the most exotic place, because frankly every place on this planet has been explored, really. The real secret is not where you go, it's how you tell a story. That's really what it's about, and so I had to then read everything I could, everything available about pandas. I literally started to think like a panda bear. I was just like, panda, panda, panda. And I went back to them, and I pitched the story again. I said, "No, no, no, this is what I'm gonna do, "and it's amazing, and it's so different "from eight years ago." And I convinced them, but that's really the secret. And it's really about getting access, that is the hardest thing about what we do. How do you get access? And how do you get people to trust you? And this is Papa Panda, who it was really hard to get him to agree to this, but I had this idea. Papa Panda, I want to take a picture of you, with all the pandas on top of you. And he's like, no, no, no. These are million dollar bears, each little one. He did not want to take them away from their mama bears. And I said, "No, it'll just be for 20 seconds, I promise." So, imagine, I'm perched on top of a ladder, above him. And the whole time he has this sheer look of fear. And he just kept saying, are you done yet? Are you done yet? And finally, I said, "Papa Panda, I am done." And so then all the keepers came in, and they took the babies back to their mom. And that's when he cracked his first smile. So, for all of you, never stop photographing when you think that the thing is over, that's always when the best picture happens. Really, never stop recording, that's it's always like that, even with video too, when I'm making a film, and I'm like, we're done, that's a wrap. You take the mic off, and then the person says the best thing ever. (audience laughing) So, just leave it, leave it running. Keep working until the last, last moment. Anyway these little, mythical creatures are I mean, we've kind of reduced them to cartoon characters in a way, right? I mean, we see them everywhere, they're ubiquitous. They're like, look, there's a book, Panda Love. (chuckling) They're just almost cartoonish, but once I started really learning about pandas, it blew my mind. I mean, they've been around they're planet for 8 million years, and they were only discovered to mankind I mean, the first one was captured alive in 1936. And if you look at ancient Chinese art, from thousands of years ago, you will see representations of every other animal, and even bamboo, but you'll never a representation of a panda bear. They were that elusive. They'd hide out in those thick bamboo forests, away from humanity. And so that's actualLy they're true nature. They're not these clownish, little creatures. And it was really hard to get this picture. I would climb up this mountian every day, and the keepers were like, yeah, you can go. You're never gonna find her. And she was in the largest enclosure, but they're really elusive. And finally, almost at the end of the assignment when I'm just panicked, this panda bear just magically comes out of it was a misty, misty morning. And she just walks out and does her little, hey y'all, pose, and then disappears. And that's the other thing, repetition. I go back and back and back again, until I the image that I'm thinking about. But the biggest part of the story that was or the funniest part was just that for decades the Chinese couldn't figure out how to breed them in captivity. And they were getting desperate. They were wielding huge television sets and showing them panda porn. (audience laughing) Not a joke, they were giving them Viagra. Oh my goodness. And doing everything and it just didn't work, nothing was working until they figured out two really important things. One, the pandas, they can only get pregnant 24 to 72 hours in an entire year. It's not a big window. And then the second thing is you need to give her choice. It's not like they've got Tinder or something. You've got to give her You can't just put any old male into the enclosure with her. So once they did that, they cracked the code, and they have very, very successful panda breeding program. And they're born tiny, blind, deaf, little squiggle of a thing, and one-nine-hundredth of their mother's weight. They're also one of the fastest growing mammals on the planet, and they smell like little, wet puppy dogs, if you are wondering. They are adorable. But the best part of this story for me was also this. So it turns out, to turn a panda back to the wild, they forget how to be wild after one generation in captivity, so you need to train them to be wild, which means that they basically are very few, maybe five of them get selected to go through panda training. Can you imagine, panda training? But the hilarious part was that Papa Panda said, "They should never be comfortable "around human beings," and so we all had to wear these bank robber costumes, and and they're not they don't go by sight, actually. Pandas go by smell, so they were scented with urine. (audience laughing) So I got to dress up in a panda costume every day, scented with panda urine. It was really great, no, but they're vegetarian, so it wasn't that bad. (audience laughing) But anyway so they one of the most important test is do they know who their predators are? Do they run away from them? So, they would wheel these stuffed leopards into the enclosure and and then, if the panda ran up a tree and escaped the leopard, she passes with flying colors, and it's like karate, and it's all these different series of tests. And so she passes and passes and this is the largest enclosure, and they literally have to go in and try to find her with a radio collar. And then Papa Panda said, "If they pass all these tests, "it's basically like graduating Harvard. "And when you graduate Harvard, "you get to go back to the wild." So, this was just a really incredible story, and I learned so much. And I really realized that don't anything at face value, because if you look at all the stories coming out of China, it's always about the bad horrible environmental stories, you can't imagine anything good possibly happening. But guess what? One month after this published, the panda was taken, de-listed from most endangered. The panda's doing really well there. And it's a success story. And actually China is one of the few countries where forest coverage is actually growing. So, it's just this really cool story. And I think that with everything you do, just go a little deeper. Get beyond everything that's been written and find a unique perspective. But I don't let my mom dress me up in costumes any more, and I sometimes do find myself dressed up, but I think that the main takeaway here is that I was on this path, covering conflicts. And when I realized that it wasn't really what I wanted to do anymore. I walked away from that, and I think that's the lesson here. Let life lead you where it may, but don't be afraid to stop and question, and find a new path. Don't be afraid of that. There's so many different paths for all of us. And I think it's the best time to be alive as a storyteller, frankly. And I also think narratives are really, super essential. It's the stories that we tell ourselves become our reality. And right now, we just have to rediscover what we think we already know, and tell a new narrative. And imagine a world we all want to live in, because it's important to get past those headlines and remember the whole story. I do think it's important to talk about the challenges of this world, but I also think it's equally as important to talk about the things that connect us. And I've been to all of these challenging places, and guess what? In every single of them, I found cause for hope, and incredible stories that really deserved to have their stories told too. And so, when Alleo asked me if we had a moon in America, he really reminded me of all those things that connect us, so celebrate the goodness too. It's equally as important. And that's my lesson or my thing for today, (chuckling) so thank you very much. (audience applauding) Thanks. So, we have time for we have time for Q&A, thanks.
So, we will now open it up to questions. We'll start with the folks here in the studio, and then we can go to some questions, online. We have a mic that we'll pass around. We've got a question in the back here.
Hi, Amy, thank you for sharing.
I know hard work is important as a photographer, but I was really compelled with your commentary about compassion and for example, climbing that mountain you walked a mile in people's shoes and you said something along the lines that that really helped you tell the story. Can you expand upon that, the empathy side, and how that's important for telling stories, photographically?
Yeah, I mean, I do think that it's really easy to kind of sit I don't know. We almost go to places with a story already written in our head, before we even get there. We read so much, we think we know it. And actually the one thing that I'm always, always humbled by and reminded by is that, no, I don't know the story. And that unless you have empathy, unless you really do walk in the shoes of others and take the time to kind of feel what it means, you're never gonna understand it. And not that I do, ever. I just scratch the surface of everything, but I try to get one step closer to that, because that is people need to they need to tell their stories, really. And I think the only way to do that is through empathy, not through the tools as amazing as they are. The Z7, sorry. (chuckling) No, but as amazing as they are, it's not about the tech, actually. I love technology, but it's not about that. It is the only the most important tool to have, I believe. Thank you.
Pass it over.
I just was wondering you've written your Panda Love. Do you have anything else in the works that we can look forward to?
Oh, thank you, I have lots of things in the works. (audience laughing) And I can't talk about them all, but I'm moving more into filming. And I do, eventually, I feel like when I'm a really old lady and I can't move anymore, I will that's when I'm gonna write, because right now I have all these this limited time right now. I am riding the wave, trying to tell the stories while I have that impact, and have a platform, and have the ability to do them. But I'm using every kind of medium I can, from virtual reality to I directed I was really proud to be part of a team, it's a film called My Africa, that you can get online right now, that tells the story of this place, and it's in 360 degrees, and it really I think is the ultimate empathy machine, in a way. You can feel like you're there. But I've got a film project coming up, and I've got a story for National Geographic about giraffes, so now my next animal is giraffes. (chuckling) So, many different things. Yeah, and also lions. A lion story. But yes, many things, thank you for asking. Yeah. Yes.
Hi, Amy, my name is H. Dean Wynn. I've been a big admirer of your work for the past years. And so to hear your commentary, go along with the photos I've admired for so long, it was really wonderful, very inspiring. I wanted to ask you about your experience, especially that burka story, as a woman in a war-torn country. What was that like and how did you handle the fear?
Oh, that's a really good question. I don't know how I handle fear. I just get through it. I mean, like all of us, I think you don't really realize what you're going through in the moments. And we all have this tremendous I'm always amazed how much how much is inside every single one of us. How much we can all do, it's really amazing. I realize fear is the okay, I know that there are of course, people how do I I have so many thoughts because I'm jet-lagged. I mean, it's all, they're all coming in. (audience laughing) Okay, so. So, let me start, okay. We are our own worst enemy. And of course, oh, we all have different things that we have to get through, and biases and people have always underestimated me my whole life. And I never get the jobs or the things, but I just keep going anyway. But I find that it's myself that stops me, more than anybody else. And so that is not just a war zone, but just me stopping myself. But being in those places, the truth is there are incredible people everywhere. I met the most inspiring people, sometimes, in the most difficult places. And they are the ones that keep me going. I do this for them. They are so beautiful. They just I could cry right now when I think about all the things I've learned from so many amazing people, who are really the brave ones. I'm such a fraud, because I just come in and tell stories, and then I get to leave. They're there, and they are the ones that keep and remind me of what's really important, and what to be afraid of. And they are also they've become my greatest protectors too. When you stay in a place long enough, people take care of you. So, I don't know if I answered your question at all, but thank you for it. (chuckling)
I got a question from online, kind of continuing on with that safety concept or fear concept. Do you have any particular specific tips for women who are traveling solo?
For all people, yes!
And for all people traveling solo.
Yes, for all people, all everything. And animals too. No, no, no. (chuckling) But know how to stay safe, it's so simple. First of all, I actually like traveling alone, because my antennas are totally up. I am super aware of everything going on around me. When you're with somebody else, you get into a bubble. And you stop paying attention to everything around you, and guess what? There's so many little warning signs before the actual thing happens. And so there is this thing called intuition. It's real, and it's really just I mean, I think it's just all these signs. You realize things are changing, and the environment's becoming unsafe. So, I'm really able to kind of tune into that, before things get bad. The few times that I ignored my intuition, it's really interesting, were like the few times that I literally almost got killed, because I was like, oh, no, I'm fine, I'm fine, and actually things did go wrong, quickly. So, I learned really quickly to just trust that, and it's not paranoia, it's real. The other most important thing I do is before I ever get off the airplane, I'm in touch with people in the communities I'm working in. I want them to know why I'm coming and who I am. I'm totally transparent, and the first thing I do is spend the second I get off the plane, I sit and drink endless cups of tea, and tell people why I'm there. And once I have the blessings of the top echelon, it just spreads like wildfire. Everybody knows who you are. And all of a sudden, when you have their blessings, for the most part, nobody wants to mess with you, because you're welcomed there. And I always sort of go with the people that are known and loved in a community, that's really important. I've learned that over my 20 years of doing this. You're translator, if you have a translator, is your representative. So, really you need to trust them, and also make sure that they're gonna be have the empathy that you would have, because I remember even if they're speaking a different language, I can read through body obviously, body signals and tone of voice, and all of that, is universal. And I remember having a translator that was kind of yelling at somebody, and I was like, what are you doing? And he's like, oh, sorry. (chuckling) And so, just that's really important. But I think doing the groundwork in advance is really, really important, and that will keep you safe. And then then you oh, I could give a whole class about safety, but we'll end there. Okay.
Let's see now, let me see if there are any more.
Are there any other questions?
We have more from the folks at home. And so one is this is from Robin Grant. And just you talked about finding that person that everybody in the community trusts, maybe an example of how you found one person or how do you do that research to figure out who?
Well, I research. Okay, so great question. And I mean, one way, is to just get online, and also find local papers, so not just reading the big Western papers and magazines. Read those, but then get online, because there's always local newspapers. And we're so lucky, because very often they're translated into English. There's very often English additions, no matter where you're going. If you're going to a foreign place. But I find the best news there. And then I'll often get in touch with a local journalist, or local not-NGOs, the non-profits working there. There's so many ways, but do your research. Reach out to people, and really take the time to listen to them and find out what the real situation is on the ground, and then they will even in Montana, in my backyard, I went to do a story, and I remember it was actually about the oil boom in North Dakota. And I went, I was driving to this really remote place. And I had gotten the permission of the elders in that community, and miles away, it took like an hour to get out to this little community. They were like, oh yeah, we know who you are. And it kind of blew my mind that word travels fast no matter where you are, from New York's Fifth Avenue to the slums of India. Literally, there's hierarchy, and if you do the groundwork, the people will start to know who you are.