“Do it for them.” These are the words that Lisa Kristine, humanitarian photographer, had written on her hand as she approached the stage about to give a talk to a large audience on modern-day slavery. For 25 years, Kristine has followed her twin passions of photography and anthropology, seeking out remote indigenous peoples and places to photograph. She has travelled to over 60 countries on six continents, and always her work maintains a fierce sense of depth. She captures the dignity of distant peoples, the expansive beauty of the natural world, and her most recent work focuses on humanizing and telling the stories of enslaved peoples.
A woman living and breathing her mission, Kristine is also the mother of two young children. When she is at home, she starts every day walking in solitude for an hour with her dog. She shares that “Once you open up to your sense of purpose in the world, the gift that comes back is tenfold.” Here, Paul Sutherland interviews Lisa Kristine as she comes out from behind the camera to “Do it for them.”
Paul Sutherland: There’s an Iranian prayer, “Blessed is the man who gives advice a thousand times; more blessed is the person who takes that advice and uses it.” So I would like to start with what motivates you.
Lisa Kristine: I was exhibiting my photography at the World Peace Conference. While I was with his Holiness and other Nobel Peace [Prize] laureates, someone started talking to me about slavery. It floored me, because I believed that there was no such thing as slavery today; it’s ancient history. Yet in fact, it is not. What most alarmed me was my own lack of knowledge of it. My work is built on observing in the world and traveling to remote places; I’m looking at things with a distinct eye, yet I hadn’t seen it. In noting my own lack of seeing, it struck me that if I don’t know, how many other people don’t know? And this knowledge literally started burning a hole in my stomach. Almost immediately, I flew down to L.A. and met with the director of Free the Slaves to offer my help.
How was the issue of modern-day slavery related to your previous work as a humanitarian photographer?
From a young age, I was the kid marveling at anthropology books and National Geographic and seeing these ancient people as very knowing and connected and solid. I made a decision that when I was old enough, I would go find them and ask how they cultivated this. Even though this may or may not have been true, this was my perception as a child.
When I learned about slavery, it lit this fire in me that was unique. It’s important to be a voice for people who are not heard or don’t have a voice for themselves. And I was just so angry; it sort of hit me in a way like being hit by a truck or something. It wasn’t an issue I thought about; initially, it was just a very heavy feeling of duty. I felt it was wrong and intolerable, and I felt I had to do something ― to be a part of the change, not to just say, “Wow, that’s horrible and interesting.” I actually felt that I had the ability to help. I want millions of people to see these photographs and be compelled to act; to also say, “This is intolerable. I must do something.”
So, you were angry at yourself because you didn’t know that slavery still existed?
Yes. I didn’t have the awareness. I had no idea that it existed to such a degree. I have traveled to 60 countries on six continents, and I did not know. I’ll go meet with people who are in the know, and yet they don’t know.
This was the catalyst for you to tell this story?
People are motivated to help in their own ways, whether it’s through volunteering or donating. For me, photography can transcend language. It says a lot when you see a photograph of a human being. There’s this anxiousness with it, so you can really take the time to connect with the human in the photo. I think that it’s an invitation to become intimate with something that maybe we would normally turn our faces away from. To me, that’s part of the colloquial thing in letting this information sort of get inside us as an invitation to do something ― to have a conversation, to ask a question, to say, “No, this isn’t okay,” to donate, to buy a book, to learn more, to share with your friends, to lend a hand ― whatever it is.
Is there something about our culture that causes us to avoid seeing injustice?
It is happening next door! I don’t know if it’s so much cultural, the avoidance, but I really do believe that if we see each other as fellow human beings, then it becomes very difficult to tolerate these abuses.
Did your parents nurture this role as a world citizen?
Well, my mom pretty much raised me, and she was a huge believer in encouraging me to follow what I wanted to pursue. I started photographing at 11 and printing at 13. The reason that I photograph is to find my way in the world. There’s no other reason, really, although now it’s become different and more impactful, and I no doubt have made it my life’s purpose. I suppose it always has been my life purpose, but it didn’t mean that I would be paid for it, per se. I’ve always done it because it helps me identify my truth. I called the world my university, and the people I’ve photographed are my professors. I don’t feel like I was going out to try to save the world or make a change in that way. I was really trying to understand myself, and I’ll stay behind the lens. I just felt this really strong sense of … of ancient culture, and the human family, and the notion that we’re united by our differences. That’s exactly what unites us. We can and should celebrate and marvel in those differences. They don’t have to be threatening or horrible or scary.
What makes you so suited to photography?
I always say that we all have our gifts, each unique to ourselves, and my work is entirely about connection. I’m technically precise and all of those things that one should be in order to be sound at their craft. But my work is not about that ― that’s just a backdrop. What it’s really about is connection; really seeing [people], and them allowing themselves to be seen and recorded in that instant.
How do you create an environment where people open up?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. I hope it’s what I bring to the table as a person. I really do feel in awe of others.
People have described you as having a deep soulful presence, an innocent transparency. Do you think this is what causes people to open up to you.
No, yet I also think that life is progression, right? (laughter) It’s the big, beautiful canvas of our life, and we’re always painting and changing and evolving it. I really dig getting older, because I feel like so much crap drops away to the real and significant stuff. You get to fertilize your garden with it and open yourself up. Being with people, or in uncomfortable situations, or whatever it is that there is ― to me, there is an effort sometimes in really allowing myself to stay outside my comfort zone. I think you must confront whatever you’re afraid of.
I work my ass off, and when I think about my life, I feel like in some ways it’s totally fear-based, and not in a negative way. I’m pretty acutely aware of fear in my life, whether it’s self-consciousness or perfectionism. Actually, I’m not sure what it is. I do it, but it’s not like I’m not afraid. I do it anyway.
That’s driving you forward; the thought, “I’ve got this fear, but it doesn’t mean I don’t keep walking this path?”
Totally, and the cool thing, too, to me, is being honorable and honest about it.
You’re authentic about your fear. You’re not trying to hide it from the people you are capturing while you work?
Yes, although I have to say, I may have a lot of fear, but I never have it when I’m working. (laughter)
You put your life in danger, and that might be considered worthy of fear to some. Where does it go?
I don’t know where it goes, but it’s definitely not around. I feel very strong when I’m working, and yet I don’t necessarily feel that way in the rest of my life. But I don’t carry fear when I work. It’s probably the power of purpose and also because I can’t afford to be afraid. I cannot afford to be afraid in some situations where it’s actually very dangerous. If you’re going to be afraid, it’s not going to serve you. And it’s certainly not going to serve the people I’m photographing. I’m a torch-bearer, and I’m here to be their witness. I’m here to speak in their stead, and you would have to do an awful lot to pry me away from doing this work, because I feel so robust about it.
You’re going into a situation that you know is dangerous, and you’re not feeling fear; you’re feeling purpose.
I try not to create so many stories in my head around that stuff, because I feel like I could build the story that might hinder my clarity or something when I’m traveling. Do you remember when Aung San Suu Kyi walked up to the military in Burma, and they were all holding these guns, and this lone woman walked through the military, up to the people, and held her hand up to stop.
And they all stopped, and they put their arms down. I think that she carries with her a dignity because she knows that the higher purpose is about the nonviolence. And people understood and dropped their weapons because it was right.
I try to keep my head focused on the higher purpose and the outcome and not delve into any thoughts that might pollute my ability to do what I truly believe I am meant to do.
Is it fair to say that just making some of your photographs may put you in danger because you’re exposing something?
And to just blow the head off of this whole horrible system, yes. Look at what’s happening to these people; you can’t keep a secret anymore. The people that brought me down that mineshaft were enslaved people, and it was a huge honor for them to bring me down and show me what it is that they’re forced to do. It becomes very much about sharing the time with them.
How do you balance that with your personal life?
Well, life is a work in progress, right? (laughter) I always say that I love being away, and I love coming home, because I have things going on in both places. Sometimes it’s difficult because my family can’t always come with me, although my kids have been to ten countries so far. But there are other times when I have to go on my own, and I’m certainly not going to bring them into an area when I’m working on slavery stuff. But it is what I’m meant to do; I’m so sure of it.
How do you put your own needs to the side?
It helps that I know that I’m having an impact. I’ve raised almost $50,000 in the course of the last 12 months through my artwork alone.
What values from your experience as a photographer do you teach your two children?
Well, I’ll give you a funny example. We were hanging out, and my five-year-old, Kian, starts pacing, and he says, “Mommy, I want to talk to you about something.” And I said, “Sure, what would you like to discuss?” And he says, “Well, I think we should talk about how to make the world a better place.” I said, “Really? Okay. Well, do you have any ideas on that? And we can talk about it.” And he says, “Well, I think we should help each other a lot.” And he said, “We should share.” I was kind of marveling because I’ve never had a conversation quite like that with him. And then he says, “And I’d like to talk about something else. Maybe we should talk about some important people.” And I said, “Well, who is important to you?” And he goes, “I think Dr. Martin Luther King is really good, don’t you think? He’s done some amazing things.” It was such a simple beauty, and then I was thinking about a TED [a nonprofit “devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading”] talk I was preparing about human connection, that I was practicing it a lot. My son hears it all the time, and I’m sure that conversation was not something that I talked about in either of the talks, but I think that he got the sentiment from those talks.
And then I wrote the conversation down, and I emailed it with some photos of Kian to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He responded, “Oh, there is hope in the world!”
I want to thank you for sharing yourself. I know you don’t ever want the story to be about you, yet this is what helps people. They can look and see that this woman can do these great things and realize, I can do great things, too.
Yeah, I think we all can.
Lisa Kristine is a San Francisco-based photographer whose notable humanitarian work hopes to encourage a dialogue about the beauty, diversity, and hardship that connects all humans. Lisa’s work has been auctioned by Christie’s New York for the United Nations.