Lisa Kristine: where photography and humanitarian causes meet
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Photographer and humanitarian Lisa Kristine has plunged 150 feet down an illegal mineshaft in Ghana to reach the depth of human pain. And she's been lifted to exalted, pinnacle positions by praise-filled media coverage and industry awards.
Having traveled both high and low in nearly 100 countries, Kristine landed at Moraga's Saint Mary's College in late January to deliver the final lecture in the school's "Inspired" 2013 Jan Term Speaker Series.
On the screen, the black-and-white image of a young boy clutching a ragged cloth to his head appeared. In his eyes, the cloth's same, worn texture. His body is perhaps ten-years old; his suffering, that of centuries.
"One advantage of photography is that it's visual and can transcend language," the Marin County-based Kristine said.
Next, a tattooed boy, touching his forehead to the trunk of an elephant. Both he and the animal are submerged to their waists in river water. It is a communion.
Words float on the screen: "Images are more than art. They are knowledge."
Kristine began documenting indigenous cultures, making images of dignity amid modern-day slavery, after being slugged in the belly by the "freight train" realization that slavery is not past -- it is present.
"How could I, someone who sees, not have known?" she asked, rhetorically, during a preshow interview. "Now, I see atrocities occurring everywhere."
The sights -- captured gloriously and horrifyingly in her books, posters and prints -- strip pretense, but never promise, from the dignified people and places she visits.
"When I leave this country, I'm not traveling as a female or American. I am someone who wants to connect. I arrive as a human being," she explained.
Perhaps for that reason alone, she is frequently allowed access to places that are off-limits to other photographers.
"I bring a sense of awe. Even if they're enslaved, they are intrinsically the same as I am. My work is about the establishment of trust. For someone to share their authenticity with me is a soul-to-soul thing. It's not a lens-to-soul thing."
But the images argue her point. For certainly, the Nikkor lens she places on her 19th century K.B. Canham field view camera saw into the heart of the godlike Nepalese kiln worker, rising in a cloud of lethal, orange dust with 50 pounds of bricks on his head.
And the digital 35 mm model she uses when a project demands agility and that she "run like hell" if she has to, burrows beyond surfaces to reveal unforgettable, wisdom-born-of-grief profiles in Ghana, India, Washington D.C.
The pictures filling her most recent book release, "The Intimate Expanse," show her preference for searing reds, soaring blues and burnished gold tones, often made even more breathtaking by their monochromatic settings.
Two documentaries, with another on slavery in production, explain her mission.
"I pose the question, 'What if, instead of responding to differences with fear, we respond with curiosity?' " she said.
Kristine has aligned her inquisitive crosshairs with the nongovernmental group Free the Slaves, whose mission she said is to eradicate slavery in our lifetime. With her 2010 book "Slavery" and in lectures she gives worldwide, she aims to burn a hole in slave fables.
"Exactly the way you think about slavery in your worst nightmare -- that's what it's like," she told the students, faculty and photography-admiring audience.
After traveling through an inferno-like journey of kilns, mines, textile factories and sex-trafficking cubicles, audience questions centered on safety and accountability.
Kristine always partners with reputable international organizations and native abolitionists. Her translators are individually selected through interviews she conducts upon arriving in each country. Her guides are guardians, as much as hosts.
"Sometimes, they bring me in when the slave holders are gone. I only have 10 minutes and we have hand signals to know when I need to high-tail it out of there," she said. "It's in hindsight that I experience fear. When I'm out there, I'm so angry, it keeps me away from my fear."