Wearing a black and white full body suit and face mask to imitate a Giant Panda's fur patterns, photographer Ami Vitale crouches in the forest of the Wolong’s Hetaoping center, an organization dedicated to training pandas to survive in the wild. These conditions are necessary for her to capture the up-close images of the gentle giants in the August issue of National Geographic Magazine. "It was often very difficult getting the access needed to make images that were special, but it made it all the more rewarding when I was able to capture those unique moments," Vitale tells The Creators Project.
All of Vitale's shots are candid, shot patiently over the course of three years at China's panda rewilding facilities. To Vitale, it was worth all the trouble. "[The pandas] will melt your heart. They smell like wet puppies and they make the most incredible sounds. Sometimes they squeak, other times its a growl, or a bark or maybe a huff," she recounts. "Their fur is not soft like a bunny but coarse to keep them insulated in those cold, wet climates." Vitale boils down the unreal cuteness of baby pandas, as well as the absurd lengths Chinese wildlife workers go to raise them wild.
According to the National Geographic Magazine feature, workers at Wolong’s Hetaoping center must dress like their subjects in order to avoid teaching them to feel safe around humans or so the pandas don't become used to the sight or smell of a human. Check out a selection from the set, the documentary Vitale shot for National Geographic, and a bonus portrait of the photographer in her panda suit, below.
See more of Ami Vitale's work on her website.