“Travel gives us courage,” says award-winning National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Ami Vitale.
Having travelled to more than 100 countries – and, at times, often witnessing violence and political conflict – Vitale is no stranger to finding beauty in uncomfortable situations.
For the first ten years of her career she was a photographer for news wire services, such as the Associated Press, capturing grisly moments from the trenches in war-struck regions around the globe, from Afghanistan to Kosovo to Kashmir.
“I would parachute in and document the horrors,” Vitale tells PAX.
A perilous and challenging task for any photojournalist, but one that ultimately shaped Vitale’s outlook on the world, nurturing a passion for connecting with people on a local level, “whether we understand it or not,” she says.
Much like the time when Vitale was living in Kashmir (“the longest and most militarized place in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records,” she notes), documenting the hostile and complex relationship between India and Pakistan.
“I was there for four years with local people, trying to humanize this conflict that’s always described in geo-political terms,” she says. “I wanted to talk about the people caught in the middle of it.”
Through this experience, and countless others, Vitale discovered a world bound by human connections and, in turn, embraced an appreciation for the positive impact travel can have.
“Travel connects us,” Vitale says. “In a world that is deeply cynical right now, it reminds us of our resilience. The more I travel, the more I see the kindness of strangers and how real it is.”
This was one of many themes discussed Tuesday (March 3rd) at a luncheon in Toronto hosted by The Travel Corporation (TTC) dedicated to celebrating women in anticipation of International Woman’s Day this Sunday, May 8th.
The event, held at Terroni restaurant’s Summerhill location, welcomed travel media and five female trailblazers (Vitale being one of them) who are making a difference in their communities and the travel industry at large.
Joining Vitale was CEO and Co-Founder of Me to We Roxanne Joyal, YouTuber and Contiki ambassador Nadine Sykora; New York Times Best-selling author of 1,000 Places To See Before You Die Patricia Schultz and Indigenous storyteller and TV personality Sarain Fox.
The luncheon was one of two events The Travel Corporation held Tuesday – the second being a “#TTCIWD Talks and Panel Session” later that evening.
Fitting, given that 71 per cent of The Travel Corporation is comprised of women, 50 per cent of whom are in leadership roles.
“The travel industry is very fortunate to have an amazing group of women who have led our industry,” Jeff Element, president of The Travel Corporation Canada, told PAX. “We’re very fortunate and we’re celebrating that today.”
Finding real connections
Vitale was recently named TTC’s newest “Wildlife” Ambassador with TreadRight – the company’s people and planet-focused, not-for-profit arm.
It's an appropriate distinction given that Tuesday was also World Wildlife Day.
Vitale has shifted her focus away from war zones in recent years, focusing her efforts on capturing the environment and wildlife stories.
In 2009, for example, she shot a powerful story on the transport and release of one of the world’s last white rhinos.
“I’m on a mission to find stories that connect us and remind us of our connection to each another through wildlife,” Vitale says.
Vitale’s photography has earned quite the fanbase, too – her Instagram account (@amivitale) alone boasts 1.1 million followers.
“It’s extraordinary to me how an image can stop people in their tracks and have a capacity to wake us up,” she says.
Vitale says “empathy is the most important tool we can travel with” these days.
The photojournalist learned this first-hand when she was in Kashmir and joined thousands of people on a sacred pilgrimage climbing Amarnath Peak, a mountain with an elevation of 5,186 metres known for a cave that serves as a Hindu shrine.
“At the top, you sleep on a glacier,” says Vitale, recounting the experience. “It’s cold and you need warm clothes.”
What was set to be an epic adventure quickly turned sour when the porter Vitale hired to carry her things – notably, her warm clothes, down sleeping blanket and food – vanished, leaving her with nothing but the t-shirt she was wearing and her cameras on her back.
Did she consider turning around and quitting? Of course. But after witnessing the resilience of the locals around her, she was inspired to keep going.
“It allowed me to feel empathy,” she says. “…To feel what the other pilgrims felt when they were walking up that mountain.”
When she reached the top, the pilgrims “shared everything they had with me,” she says, from blankets to whatever food was available.
“When we travel, it’s not always going to be fun and exotic,” Vitale explains. “It’s about finding real connections to others, which can turn discomfort into something magical.”
As a woman who almost-always travels solo, Vitale is constantly reminded of the incredible bonds she forms while out in the field.
“Women always take me in,” she says. “Even if I don’t speak the language, it’s incredible how much we share.”
It’s a tone that differs from what is sometimes portrayed in mainstream travel marketing, she says.
“[Women] are often given the message that they don’t belong, that it’s dangerous,” she says. “I have found exactly the opposite.”
Travelling with purpose
As TreadRight’s newest “People” Ambassador, this is something Sarain Fox knows well.
The Canadian Indigenous storyteller, dancer, choreographer, activist and television host says the bond travellers form with locals in a destination is the backbone to what she calls “travelling with purpose.”
“Take a look at the moments you remember most from your travels – I guarantee you they have something to do with meeting a local, or an experience that changed the way you think about something, or the way you see yourself in the world,” Fox says.
It’s an ideology travel agents can adapt when planning local experiences for their clients, Fox says, especially when it comes to embracing Indigenous tourism.
“Think of travelling as a story – what is that story? Whose land am I on? How does someone know that land? What would they recommend? You can have amazing experiences, but when you recommend a traveller start there, you’re changing how they go home and talk about where they’ve been,” Fox says.
As for where women fit into the picture, Fox says “women should be empowered to see everything they want to” and not feel like they “have to create a big master plan,” whether that be travelling in a group or going solo.
She predicts the travel industry will, over time, adapt new and meaningful ways to empower women.
“It’s not just about what men think women want,” Fox says, frankly, “but what women want and how we want to travel and exist in the world."
“Women should harness every experience,” she says.
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