2000 — professional winner
Ami Vitale’s journey as a photojournalist has taken her to more than 80 countries. She has witnessed civil unrest, poverty, destruction of life, and unspeakable violence. But she has also experienced surreal beauty and the enduring power of the human spirit, and she is committed to highlighting the surprising and subtle similarities between cultures. Her photographs have been exhibited around the world in museums and galleries and published in international magazines including National Geographic, Adventure, Geo, Newsweek, Time, Smithsonian. Her work has garnered multiple awards from prestigious organizations including World Press Photo, the Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism, Lucie awards, the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Reporting, and the Magazine Photographer of the Year award, among many others.
Now based in Montana, Vitale is a contract photographer with National Geographic magazine and frequently gives workshops throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia. She is also making a documentary film on migration in Bangladesh and writing a book about the stories behind the images.
Initially a grant recipient in 2000, Ami Vitale was asked to update her work on the Fulani in 2011. The images in black and white are her original project, and the color images that follow are the culture revisited in 2011.
The Fulani, who once crisscrossed the continent of Africa tending their precious herds of cattle, was a civilization known for its constant movement. This nomadic existence spun the threads of a rich social fabric of tradition and ritual that endures to this day. In the West African country of Guinea Bissau, the former nomads have settled in a village, become farmers and now struggle to adapt to a world that has rudely intruded upon them.
Unlike most other ethnic tribes in Guinea Bissau, the Fulani are Muslim. Village life is structured according to Islamic traditions including performing male and female circumcision, praying five times a day, following the Islamic calendar and practicing polygamy.
The inclusion of local beliefs and traditions produces a brand of Islam that is unique to its area and its people. From the belief in tree spirits to the use of traditional medicine or “voodoo,” the mixing of cultures that took place centuries earlier has produced a society that blends a unique spiritual universe with an often brutal daily existence in the physical world.
To an outsider, the village may appear to be a place where a people, living simply, struggle to survive. While that perception is partially valid, the social hierarchy and politics existing among members of the tribe are far more complex than in most modern western societies.