THE COMPASSIONATE LENS OF A SHORE BASED PHOTOJOURNALIST
BY GILDA ROGERS
From Asbury Park to Liberia, Ethiopia, and beyond, travels and other life experiences provide inspirational fodder for photojournalist MaryAnn Vitiello. An adventurer at heart, she’s trekked to more than 40 countries, observing the sublime to the ridiculous, and conveys those experiences through her photos. The human condition, she said, captures and drives her passion.
“Tibet was one of my favourite places to visit,” said Vitiello, a long time Jersey Shore resident currently residing in Interlaken. “I saw the most resilience there. I saw joy in such an oppressed community.” Resiliency of the human spirit is a common thread that runs through her art, particularly photos taken in Asbury Park, where she moved in 1993 before that city’s resurrection commenced, and where she began visually recording her surroundings.
“The old Asbury Park pictures were of decay,” she explained. “An image that got a lot of attention was someone shooting up. That’s when I started taking shots with an activist lens. The draw here has always been a community that’s artistic and activist. That hasn’t changed.” The pictures Vitiello takes these days represent people enjoying the shore. She relishes the “new and younger energy” in the area, celebrating and praising its newfound diversity.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Vitiello’s journey as a photographer started at the age of 15 when she earned enough money to purchase her first camera, a Nikon F, while working at a Key Food supermarket. She enrolled at City University of New York in 1971, answering a calling to become a nurse, which ultimately, she said, enhanced her ability to see the humanity in all people. Now retired, Vitiello was a certified nurse practitioner specializing in HIV and AIDS care. In 1976, she joined the Peace Corps and served as a nurse in Liberia in North Africa for a year.
“My initial exposure working with other populations came from the Peace Corps,” she related. While working at Columbia University from 1999 to 2002 with the Maternal to Child Transmission Initiative, her experience as an HIV Perinatal Specialist took her to Kenya, where she became a woman on a mission, gaining expertise in how the virus is transmitted from mother to baby (primarily during pregnancy, childbirth or while breast feeding).
“To make sustainable change, I needed to be there for the women and children,” she said, her Brooklyn accent coming to the fore, adding that throughout her travels and in pursuit of a mission to help the vulnerable and ill, she was also raising her own three kids in Point Pleasant.
From 2002 to 2011, as senior advisor to the International Training and Education Center on Health at the University of Washington in Seattle, Vitiello became the global outreach coordinator for the President’s Emergency Plans for AIDS Relief under the Bush and Obama administrations. In that role, she used her training to make a difference in Ethiopia, where she lived alongside marginalized women and children in poverty, working to gain their trust. She called the experience one of her most daunting and challenging.
Before I could speak the language, I started to use photos to teach with,” she recalled, adding her camera was a saving grace. “What I was seeing was devastating. The camera gave me a little distance.”
Vitiello’s first one woman show, aptly titled “Resilience,” took place at Asbury Park’s Exhibit No. 9 Gallery last year. Her works are currently among those featured at the city’s Gallery 629 in the show “Portraits: Artists’ Interpretations of the Human Personality.” She believes the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” is apropos to the life she has lived.
“I’ve been taking these images all my life,” she said. “We have to see the humanity in all people…that’s what I shoot.