The Daily Edit – National Geographic Magazine: Ami Vitale

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Photograph by Ami Vitale Ye Ye, a 16-year-old giant panda, lounges in a wild enclosure at a conservation center in Wolong Nature Reserve. Her name, whose characters represent Japan and China, celebrates the friendship between the two nations. Ye Ye’s cub Hua Yan (Pretty Girl) is being trained for release into the wild.

Ye Ye, a 16-year-old giant panda, lounges in a wild enclosure at a conservation center in Wolong Nature Reserve. Her name, whose characters represent Japan and China, celebrates the friendship between the two nations. Ye Ye’s cub Hua Yan (Pretty Girl) is being trained for release into the wild. © Ami Vitale / National Geographic

Photograph by Ami Vitale Zhang Hemin—“Papa Panda” to his staff—poses with cubs born in 2015 at Bifengxia Panda Base. “Some local people say giant pandas have magic powers,” says Zhang, who directs many of China’s panda conservation efforts. “To me, they simply represent beauty and peace.

Zhang Hemin—“Papa Panda” to his staff—poses with cubs born in 2015 at Bifengxia Panda Base. “Some local people say giant pandas have magic powers,” says Zhang, who directs many of China’s panda conservation efforts. “To me, they simply represent beauty and peace.” © Ami Vitale / National Geographic

Photography by Ami Vitale Is a panda cub fooled by a panda suit? That’s the hope at Wolong’s Hetaoping center, where captive-bred bears training for life in the wild are kept relatively sheltered from human contact, even during a rare hands-on checkup.

Is a panda cub fooled by a panda suit? That’s the hope at Wolong’s Hetaoping center, where captive-bred bears training for life in the wild are kept relatively sheltered from human contact, even during a rare hands-on checkup. © Ami Vitale / National Geographic

Photograph by Ami Vitale Wolong Reserve keepers transport Hua Jiao (Delicate Beauty) for a health check before she nishes “wild training.” The habitat also protects red pandas, pheasant, tufted deer, and other species that bene t from giant panda conservation.

Wolong Reserve keepers transport Hua Jiao (Delicate Beauty) for a health check before she nishes “wild training.” The habitat also protects red pandas, pheasant, tufted deer, and other species that bene t from giant panda conservation. © Ami Vitale / National Geographic

Photograph by Ami Vitale In a large forested enclosure of the Wolong Reserve, panda keepers Ma Li and Liu Xiaoqiang listen for radio signals from a collared panda training to be released to the wild. Tracking can tell them how the cub is faring in the rougher terrain up the mountain.

In a large forested enclosure of the Wolong Reserve, panda keepers Ma Li and Liu Xiaoqiang listen for radio signals from a collared panda training to be released to the wild. Tracking can tell them how the cub is faring in the rougher terrain up the mountain. © Ami Vitale / National Geographic

 

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National Geographic Magazine

Director of Photography: Sarah Leen
Creative Director: 
Emmett Smith
Print Designer: 
Hannah Tak
Photo Editor: 
Sadie Quarrier 
Photographer: Ami Vitale

Heidi: How did you find yourself shooting people in panda suits raising captive babies at the Wolong center of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda?
Ami: I was part of a film team that came in 2013 for PBS/NatGeo production. Realized what an extraordinary story this was and pitched it to National Geographic Magazine once I got access to it.

Were there any unique challenges and how did you overcome them?
Many challenges. First, I had to pitch a story and convince editors that I could make it unique and different from what was already done. They had published a story on pandas about 7 or 8 years earlier so my job was figuring out what would be special about this story. Also, these are tiny, fragile creatures and the keepers were quite stressed about their health and safety. I had to work around these concerns and was not allowed to use flash so there were technical issues that needed to be solved including flickering fluorescent lights. It means you have to shoot at 30th of a second to avoid having lines going through every image. Pandas make quick rapid movements so coming away with a sharp and compelling image was harder than it might seem. Plus they are solitary creatures who like to hide in the thick bamboo or high up in the treetops when they are young.

I understood from reading the story that bears being trained to live in the semi wild must not get used seeing humans. Did you wear a panda suit too?
Yes! of course. the best part!

What did it smell like, the suit? 
They scent the panda suits with urine but wasn’t too bad because pandas are mostly vegetarian. They smelled more like wet puppies or bamboo.

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You’ve had a wide range of experiences, how did this one strike or move you as a photographer?
I was constantly thinking how incredibly privileged it was to be there!! Still can’t believe it and miss them every day!

In your motion work on this piece, Papa Panda describes falling in love with the baby panda’s as if they were your own children, did you share that same sentiment of falling in love?
How can you not fall in love with them. I died of cuteness overload many times over.

How long were you there?
5 visits over the course of 3 years.

Did you have to get any special shots to spend time with the pandas?
No special shots but we were careful, especially around baby pandas. We wore masks, disinfected hands and shoes every time entering new space.

Heidi Volpe

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