Lisa Kristine

Humanitarian photographer

“While my photographs may have a sense of beauty and dignity to them, what I actually see in the world is deeply dark. In my activism, I photograph with an open heart, allow it to heal, and then I go back and do it again.”

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At age 18, Lisa Kristine left her home in northern California with a small amount of money, a backpack, and a camera. She wanted to see the world. She didn’t return for five years. Her work on modern slavery was born a couple of decades after her initial adventures, when she was on assignment with partners of Free the Slaves in 2010. During this project, she found herself in a brick factory in Nepal. Sweat stung her eyes as she peered through her camera lens, which revealed children fainting and vomiting because of the high heat. She started to cry. A single tear rolled down her cheek - she wasn’t bawling. Then, a firm hand grasped her shoulder and shook her body until it convulsed.

Becoming an artist

Lisa was born and raised in rough conditions in northern California. She didn’t mean to become a photographer - it was just something that happened to her, like most of her life up to that point.

“I remember sitting down and looking at these big books on anthropology as a kid,” she reminisced. “I saw pictures of people that looked totally unshakable. And I remember saying, when I’m old enough, I’m going to go meet them and find out what it is that they have.”

Lisa enrolled in the Fashion Institute, but, upon graduation, she realized that she wanted to be an artist instead. With the money she had saved, Lisa purchased a one way ticket to explore the world. “I didn’t go out into the world to save the world,” she admitted. “I was trying to save my own life, figure out my direction.”

From Peru to India, Lisa saw the world, living in remote villages and spending time with the inhabitants. She selected places to go based on whatever made her heart jump and come alive - a climate, a tradition, a religion. And she loved it.

“I’ve always been enamored with learning from people,” she said. “It fascinates me how we find meaning in our lives, all of us.”

After decades of traveling, Lisa had created portfolios of striking images from more than 150 countries and had amassed a client base who acquired her work. In 2009, she was invited to exhibit at a world peace summit in Vancouver attended by the Dalai Lama.

That’s where Lisa learned about forced labour and child labour. It struck her, hard.

“As a photographer, my career is built on observing others, on seeing. But I completely missed this,” she said. “I was appalled, I couldn’t sleep, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

Within a week, she was in Los Angeles to meet with the founder of the NGO Free the Slaves. She had found a new direction for her work - and a new journey.

Making a difference

Hands coated in brilliantly-colored dyes, which are toxic. Boys carrying heavy stones instead of backpacks. Lisa’s work is eye-catching, even beautiful, which clashes with the dark realities of her subjects.

“We live in a world where there is darkness and there is light,” she reasoned. “We can’t value one without the other.”

Lisa has worked in dangerous contexts, watched traffickers patrol the streets for victims, and witnessed the abuse of women and children. She is constantly trying to balance out the negative with the positive.

“I usually go through it when I’m back in my studio and editing,” she shared. “It’s a private, safe space where I can look at these images and just let it go, let my heart bleed.”

To her, it’s worth it. She makes strong images, allows her heart to heal, and goes back out there to do it all over again. She does it because, to her, photography is one of the best ways to raise awareness about injustices in the world.

“I think that photography has that power to transcend language,” she said. “I’m inviting people to understand something that maybe they’re not so aware of, and to hopefully engage them to become a part of the solution.”

For Lisa, humanitarian photography is about awareness. She has watched people stand before her images, become emotional, and ask what they can do to help. And that is success, the small start of a larger wave of change.

How can I help?

Here are Lisa’s top tips for budding activists: