02 Sep In Conversation with Photographer Lisa Kristine
When Lisa Kristine began to travel, she did it with a camera in hand. Driven by her curiosity about indigenous peoples and ancient cultures, and by her desire to meet the people she had read about in books and magazines, she set off on a five-year sojourn that took her across continents. What began as curiosity became a career and a passion for intimately documenting the human spirit. Over the last several years, she has picked up the mantle of documenting modern-day slavery throughout the world in an effort to shine a light on the issue and help eradicate it. Sivani Babu recently sat down with Lisa to talk about her career and her current passion.
SB: What made you want to photograph people, particularly indigenous peoples?
LK: Well, I think that when I was a little kid, I would look at these big books that my mom had and National Geographic and things like that. And I think I just marveled at these people that looked to me like they were just so unshakeable. I had this draw when I was quite young to go meet these people. Then fast forward some years later when my uncle gave me a camera and I started making photographs with the camera. And then when I was old enough to go traveling, of course I brought my camera with me and that’s kind of how it all started.
SB: What was the first place you went?
LK: I first went to Europe and I was there bopping around for about six months, but I actually stayed out of the [U.S.] for five years and the vast majority of that time was in North Africa and mostly Asia. And Asia really just got me. I fell in love with Asia and started making so many images there. I loved all the ancient traditions and cultures.
SB: You’ve previously called photography the “ultimate tool for peacemaking.” Could you say a little bit more about that?
LK: I think the thing with a photograph that is different than any other form is that it speaks viscerally to someone. It doesn’t need a language because it transcends language. It’s really about the viewer and it’s about the image and it’s about the relationship that occurs between the two. And I think that, all over the world, when we see someone that is different, there’s not an acceptance to really look at someone because that would be invasive — could be even confrontational. But with an image, you can stand in front of it and really pause — really look at someone. And I think that there’s something born there. Like, there’s this spaciousness to connect. And even though it’s a subject in an image, I have the great opportunity of watching somebody stand before an image and be completely transformed. And I think, very much, it has the potential to open hearts, open minds, change hearts, and change minds.
SB: Your work is intimate. And it’s intimate not just with the people you’re photographing, but with the places. How do you make those connections?
LK: What drives me is what I’m passionate and excited about. That’s my driver. My driver isn’t what I think will sell. It’s really calculated from a heart space and I think that when I enter into a place or [am] meeting people, it really comes from the genuine curiosity and wonder that I have for a place or a person, and that’s really how the connection is born.
When I get dropped somewhere new, I have this sense of awe — not in a Mount Everest kind of way, but like this simple sense of awe of seeing something new, of smelling something new, of hearing something new, of meeting someone and learning by their example of living.
SB: When you pick a place to go, is that connection always already brewing? Do you ever go to a place where you don’t yet know?
LK: Usually I have a draw to go there. I do a lot of planning before. There’s research and then you have to find translators and when I get there, I have to make sure it all works. And I may have an idea of a certain community of people I want to photograph or something like that, but I never know what’s going to happen. I could get there and people have migrated somewhere else, for example. I just never know what’s going to happen. But I think that the key element is that I really trust in the journey. I have a belief that somehow within that journey all the pieces will come together that are meant to come together and that’s what I call “the magic.” And the magic sort of happens, you know?
SB: Have you ever been somewhere and the magic doesn’t happen?
LK: It often doesn’t happen when I think it’s going to happen. For example, some years ago when I was in West Africa, I was gone for three months and I got caught in a Harmattan, which is like a windstorm, and all of my equipment broke and the vast majority of all my work was lost. That’s three months of work lost. Three months of time lost. All my equipment was lost and I was like, whoa.
I got home and I did develop [what was left] and everything was a mess — scratched, blown out, a mess. And I made a decision: I can get angry about this, or I can let it go. And I totally let it go. I mean, I did not get angry. This is what the cosmos did. That’s just the way it’s going to be. Let it go.
And then some years later — I think three or four years later — I ended up going back to the Sahara and I don’t know if you’re familiar with my dunes image…
SB: Yes, I am.
LK: It’s one of my signature pieces of these Tuaregs walking through the desert, and I made that image and I knew when I made that image that that was when the magic was supposed to happen.
I just trust that it’s going to find its way and I just have to go with it. It’s not about me seizing it or conquering it. It’s really about me being present with it. And then I just give it up to the gods.
SB: You’ve created a powerful body of work and a significant part of that has become documenting modern-day slavery. How do you connect that with your larger body of work? What is the unifying theme?
LK: The unifying theme is dignity. There are a lot of people who document causes and difficult atrocities in our world, and these are shown through a shocking sort of horror, for example, and it’s really easy to show horror, I think. For me, that’s not what I’m after. I’m after being present with somebody. No matter how dire or tragic their experience or their environment is, I want to photograph the dignity in them. And dignity’s a big word for me because it’s a birthright.
[Images are] a really keen way to connect, to have somebody say, “You are my fellow brother or sister on this planet and I see you in a photograph right now, but I’m not going to tolerate this and I’m going to stand for your dignity and I’m going to do something.” That’s how I think it falls in.
The great umbrella of my work is really about unity, and dignity, and justice.
SB: When did you know that this was going to be a significant part of your life as a photographer?
LK: I think I knew when I was so affected by the information. It’s interesting because there are so many different causes that I or you or any of us could be affected by, and for whatever reason, when I learned about slavery, I felt so tragically impacted by it. Perhaps it’s because it was one of those things that at the time I didn’t know about. I didn’t know it was existing and yet it was existing. Me, as a photographer who spends her whole life observing people to make images, I didn’t see it and I think that felt really tragic and heartbreaking to me, and maybe that was a part of it somehow.
But I couldn’t sleep and I met with [representatives of Free the Slaves] and I just offered my help and it was as simple as that.
SB: Now that you know slavery exists, as a photographer, as a traveler, as a person, do you see things differently than you did before?
LK: Yes. Absolutely. I think whenever one learns about a situation that could be right in front of you that you didn’t know about before, it will change the way you see. And I think that’s why I do the work, actually, because once anyone knows, they have the ability to look for something. If we know that it’s there, then we can start to see it.
SB: For travelers who don’t share this mission, it’s not always easy to deal with these kinds of issues. So, what can they do?
LK: I suppose to be awake to something and to take action wherever one can. It depends on where one is, but, for example, in the United States there’s a hotline you can call. [Editor’s note: See information below.] So, if you see something that appears a little fishy, you can call this number and they’ll check it out.
I’m an enormous traveler in our world and I just think it’s good to be awake to things, and if you see something that doesn’t seem right, make an effort to let someone know who may be able to help.
SB: Has knowing what you now know made you less inclined to travel to certain places?
LK: No, it hasn’t. Now, I’m not a politician and I’m not going to claim to have all the answers, but I think turning a back on people is — it’s not my path.
If you see someone in the U.S. who you believe might be a victim of human trafficking, report your suspicions by calling (888) 373-7888. For more on how you can join the fight against modern-day slavery and human trafficking, visit Lisa Kristine’s website at www.enslavedexhibitions.com.