Humanitarian Photography

Humanitarian photography chronicles and conveys emotional and compelling stories about social issues and challenges faced by individuals and communities worldwide. These issues encompass but are not limited to human trafficking, modern day slavery, political unrest, food shortages, droughts, religious persecution, and the climate crisis. Humanitarian photography documents these complex topics and uses photographs to raise awareness. On occasion, the images generate funds that are subsequently applied to launching or supporting humanitarian initiatives to create change.

The purpose of a master humanitarian photographer is to create a powerful image of a person in a transparent and sincere way, authentically tell their story, and uplift them in their circumstance or environment. A humanitarian photographer must genuinely acknowledge their subject, recognize them with dignity and remember they are in an equal partnership to tell a story. Respect for them is quintessential because their interests are more significant in this foundational collaboration than anyone else’s. Finally, humanitarian photography ought to evoke and stir the viewer’s emotion, create a bond and possibly ignite action from them. Humanitarian photography depicts beautiful, sometimes devastating moments, highlighting people and their cultures and traditions. Despite people living in distant, isolated parts of the world, the circumstance of their surroundings and their courage are recorded by humanitarian photography and available for the world to witness.

The Origins of Humanitarian Photography

As a master storytelling form with a long, rich history, humanitarian photography has existed for nearly as long as photography itself. Although the term “humanitarian photography” did not appear until the 1990s, the concept of using photographic images to tell urgent and heartfelt visual stories has existed since the late 1800s.

Practically, from photography’s genesis, the new image-making practice chronicled our world and told us a story. The 1800s were fraught with many hardships, such as hazardous working conditions, extreme poverty, famine, political unrest, etc. Photography recorded these stories and brought attention to causes to generate empathy, a call to action, and even change.

An early example of using photography for an impact is a series entitled London Labour and the London Poor, focusing on the harsh living conditions endured by London’s poor residents made by Henry Mayhew in 1855. In 1861, Mathew Brady, an esteemed photographer, curated a team of fellow image makers. Together, they recorded for posterity the devastation and horror of the American Civil war, creating the most comprehensive record of America during those years.

In 1888 the release of the Kodak 1 camera, invented by George Eastman, was a simple box camera and arrived loaded with a 100-exposure roll of film. The ease and affordability of this new device transformed the photographic medium into a viable economic pursuit. For the first time, many people began using photography to record their lives, and for some, it was used as a tool that would become known as humanitarian photography.

Humanitarian photography captures our attention and compels our hearts. Seeing is believing. Strong humanitarian photography transcends language and can be significant in viscerally shaking us into awareness of a situation or crisis. In 1963 journalist Malcome Browne made an iconic photograph of a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation to protest the war. The image appeared in the global news, finally arriving at the White House, provoking President John F. Kennedy to re-evaluate his administration’s Vietnam policy. Nick Ut’s harrowing photograph, The Terror of War, made in 1972 in Vietnam, shows war’s unseen horrific and tragic casualties. In 1989 Jeff Widener revealed the brave moment when an unidentified Chinese citizen positioned himself in front of a line of imposing tanks, daring to stand up to the military on the day of the massacre of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. That is the power of the photograph.

Many humanitarian photographers align themselves with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), which represent specific issues and causes. While humanitarian photography certainly documents people living in hardships unfathomable to most people, a primary objective is to leave the subject with their dignity intact and respect for their culture preserved. Through this lens of compassion, the viewer can best empathize with the subject. Over time, humanitarian photography has come to be referred to as “photography for impact” due to its primary goal: to evoke in the viewer an emotional response.

A fascinating, research-supported note about the power of imagery relates to what is known as the Picture Superiority Effect. People tend to remember pictures better than they remember words. This makes storytelling through humanitarian photography an excellent way to raise awareness about challenges facing humanity and the environment. In addition to remembering the image, people recall the emotion a photograph sparked in them and respond; acting with universality and humanity as central motivators.

Introducing Humanitarian Photographer Lisa Kristine

An internationally recognized humanitarian photographer and activist, Lisa Kristine documents indigenous peoples and social justice causes and shares stories through her art and public speaking. Her quest and commitment to humanitarian causes has drawn her to over 150 countries on six different continents. Lisa’s passion for humankind is the foundation for her greatest visual storytelling tool—humanitarian photography—as she advocates for awareness and change. Sensitively portrayed, the people and subjects in her images transcend “issues” or “tragic conditions” and are instead recognized as individual people deserving of rights, respect, and dignity. Her work exemplifies what every humanitarian photographer desires: the creation of evocative images that tell stories, spark emotional response, and champion empathy and action.

Lisa Kristine’s Career and Background

Lisa has spent over 30 years documenting indigenous peoples and social causes via photography. She amplifies the voices of people and their traditional cultures by sharing their stories of triumphs, trials, tribulations and indefatigable spirit. Her work also includes fine-art photography portraiture expressive of people’s joy, pain, loss, and hope through images that feature vibrant, saturated color, bold textural contrasts, and compositions ranging from intimate to expansive. Similarly, Lisa’s landscape images capture the mystery, magic and beauty of the natural world. “I believe that a sound work of art should be captivating each time it is viewed. A viewer from any location or walk of life can be in direct relationship with the subject of my images. Often, people tell me they have been emotionally and viscerally moved, especially by the humanitarian photographs I make.”

As her work underscores global unity and indigenous wisdom and traditions, Lisa’s call for justice for those who are enslaved or whose freedoms are exploited resounds all over the globe. Her photos have been featured in innumerable magazines, displayed in international exhibits, held and owned in personal collections, and showcased in premier museums and galleries. Expanding beyond worldwide audiences of her profound photography, Lisa utilizes her physical voice to raise awareness as a speaker and humanitarian activist. Her TEDx talk, “Photos That Bear Witness to Modern Slavery,” has received over three million views.

In this aforementioned TEDx talk, Lisa describes in vivid and harrowing detail the circumstances she experienced firsthand while traveling as a humanitarian photographer. She shared the emotional terror and physical trauma which are everyday reality for the approximately 45 million people who remain to this day trapped in modern day slavery.

In one location, the brick kilns of Nepal, men, women, and children worked nonstop in temperatures of up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. They carried as many as 18 bricks at a time on their heads from the kilns, later loading their burdens onto trucks. Conditions in the kiln were so hot that Lisa’s camera overheated and stopped working. Stopping work was a liberty the human beings enslaved there did not have. They were required to work over 16 hours every day with no breaks, not even for food or water.

On another trip, Lisa journeyed deep in the forests of Ghana, where she encountered enslaved people working in flooded gold mines. Women with infants strapped to their backs were taking part in the intense physical labor. The water filling the mines was contaminated with mercury used to aid with extraction. The enslaved workers are exposed to the toxic brew daily and tuberculosis and mercury poisoning run rampant through the enslaved population.

These are the stories of just two of close to a dozen sites Lisa visited in one year she spent working with Free The Slaves, an NGO. The photographs she captured and shared with the world continue to bring awareness to atrocities enacted all over the world. To conclude the Tedx talk, Lisa left the crowd with a final call to action, saying, “I hope that these images awaken a force in those who view them, people like you; and I hope that force will ignite a fire, and that fire will shine a light on slavery. For without that light, the beast of bondage can continue to live in the shadows.”

The Future: Spreading Awareness

As a humanitarian photographer, Lisa uses her public platform to speak at prestigious venues that include the Vatican, Wisdom 2.0, Thomson Reuters Summits, the United Nations and more. She uses her voice and images to communicate a core belief that we are linked to a common anchor, we are all people joined in one, human family. By celebrating that global community, we respect differences and bring forth necessary healing in which lies power. Lisa meets every person where they are, listens to their stories, and forges a personal relationship. The photographs she makes are elevating and captivating not simply because they display a keen eye and unique photographic talent, but because behind every image is a soul and a heart that beats in synchronicity with all fellow human beings.

By sharing these stories, the legacy of each person will continue to impact the life of another. As a humanitarian photographer, Lisa has garnered the Lucie Humanitarian Award, presented at Carnegie Hall in New York, honoring the most significant achievements of master photographers. Lisa is also the recipient of the Photographic Society of America’s (PSA) Prestigious International Understanding Through Photography (IUTP) Award, honoring significant contributions to the advancement of understanding among people. Her work is amongst the most collected humanitarian photographs in the world. By depicting indigenous and under-represented people and preserving through imagery their ancient traditions, culture, environments and everyday lives, Lisa’s work frames her subjects in dignity, nobility, power and beauty. Her body of work represents a remarkable achievement and is a true representation of humanitarian photography—or, “photography for impact.”