Shining a Light

Slavery is still happening all over the world, and this Mill Valley photographer has documented it in her new book.

“WE ARE BRINGING THE SLAVES TO FREEDOM!” my son declared as he busily steered his Lego train loaded with an assortment of characters through the living room.

“Oh my.” I smiled. Apparently his 11-year-old brain had absorbed images from my close friend Lisa’s photography book Bound to Freedom, which he and I had recently looked at together. Clearly it made an impact.

Lisa Kristine, a Mill Valley mother of two and a humanitarian photographer, has traveled to more than 100 countries on six continents for the past 30 years, documenting the lives and cultures of indigenous people. She focuses her camera on men and women working in such settings as Vietnam rice fields and salt mines of the Andes, to “identify the universal dignity in all of us.” For her latest book, Bound to Freedom (Goff Books, 2017), which has a foreword by Pope Francis, Kristine sheds light on the subject of modern-day slavery as suffered by both adults and children, in brick kilns, the sex industry, gold mines, stone quarries and textiles.

After seeing my son’s reaction to the book’s photographs, I felt compelled to dig deeper into Kristine’s creative path and process, to try and understand just how she gets to these hidden and forbidden locations and is able to make images of these imperiled people. In the process, I learned there is much we can do to make a difference; even choosing to purchase fair trade chocolate from our local market can help.

As I discovered, slavery is happening right now, nearly everywhere, despite it being illegal everywhere. Sadly, slavery can be hidden in plain sight in restaurants, the agriculture industry and domestic servitude. According to the Global Slavery Index, nearly 46 million people are enslaved in the world today. A startling fact is that entire families can be enslaved over a debt as small as $18, and for generations. Tricked by empty promises of a better job and education, the innocent find themselves forced to work 17 hours a day in inhumane conditions under the threat of violence, without pay, and unable to leave. The driving force of today’s slavery is commerce, meaning that products produced by enslaved people have value but the people making them are expendable.

Kristine first recognized photography’s power when she was a child, perusing and marveling at her mother’s anthropology books and National Geographic magazines, especially amazed to see people caked in mud, feathers and earth. She thought how unshakable they seemed, and she remembers deciding that someday she would meet these earth-covered people and discover their secret strength so she could incorporate it into her own life.

After saving money earned from working different jobs since high school, Kristine left the country for five years to explore Europe, North Africa and Asia, taking pictures along the way, and through these firsthand encounters photography became her primary interest. Back in the States, she began gradually selling prints, for years shuttling between photography and various retail jobs. Yet the more she traveled and witnessed indigenous people vulnerable to change, the more her photography gained traction and became infused with a stronger notion of inspiring unity. “What would the world be like,” she asked herself, “if instead of reacting to one another’s differences with a sense of fear, we did so with a sense of curiosity or wonder?”

Bound to Freedom grew out of an invitation: Victor Chan, founder of the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, offered Kristine the role of sole exhibitor at the Peace Summit in Vancouver, attended by the Dalai Lama and other Nobel laureates. There she met Bryn Freedman, a supporter of the NGO called Free the Slaves, and learned about the extent of modernday slavery. She’d known about human trafficking, but not the problem’s pervasiveness and scope — and realized other people probably weren’t aware either. Within weeks, she met with Free the Slaves executive director Peggy Callahan and offered to help. This new focus brought Kristine back to India and Nepal and other countries she’d already explored — this time to look behind hidden doors, climb down rickety ladders and peer behind tattered curtains, to expose the faces of slavery. The point was not to photograph the horror of people’s lives but to show their dignity.

Today Kristine is often invited to photograph communities around the world, but she also decides where to travel based on what moves her personally or is compelling from a global view. Once decided, she diligently researches the area, gets permits, hires translators, and depends on abolitionists who work undercover and risk their lives to get her in and out.

Once there on the front lines, Kristine eschews her usual traditional 4-by-5-inch large-format camera for a lighter, more compact 35 mm version, so she can move or leave quickly if need be, without disrupting or endangering her subjects: she needs to find and capture images in minutes, not hours.

She also brings bundles of candles and, if the situation seems safe, quickly makes portraits of laborers holding a lit flame, to promote viewer connection. “If we can see one another as fellow human beings, then it becomes very difficult to tolerate atrocities like slavery,” she says. “I hope that these images awaken a force in those who view them, people like you, and I, and hope that force will ignite a fire, and that fire will shine a light on slavery.”


As producers and consumers, we may unknowingly contribute to the problem of slavery through our choices of certain foods, cellphones or clothes. Understanding where products come from lets us avoid inadvertently promoting slave labor.

BUY SMART Purchase fair-trade fashion, foods, and other products. Advocate for corporate accountability and transparent supply chains by writing letters to companies. Visit knowthechain. org and and take a survey to learn how many slaves work to produce which products and how to keep your shopping cart slavery-free.

BUY SURVIVOR-MADE GOODS A crucial restorative stage for human trafficking survivors is empowerment. Consider buying survivor-made goods like those by To the Market, Freeset Global and Shop for Freedom.

DONATE Help end slavery and unfair employment practices by contributing time or money to organizations working to end slavery.

SUPPORT THE ARTS From every purchase of Lisa Kristine’s Bound to Freedom, a portion of proceeds go to organizations fighting slavery.


Categories: Feature Story