A few years ago, the leaders of Free the Slaves—an NGO based in Washington, D.C.—were debating a crucial spending decision. Should it allocate thousands of dollars toward freeing an enslaved village overseas or divert that money to hire a renowned photographer to shoot its projects in far-flung places such as India, Nepal, Haiti and Ghana?
“Our organization had to make a big choice,” Peggy Callahan, a cofounder of Free the Slaves, recalls to TakePart.
Ultimately, Free the Slaves opted to send Lisa Kristine—a photographer known for her work chronicling the lives of indigenous tribes threatened by modernization—around the globe to document some of the estimated 21 million people held in forced labor or slavery. The result of Kristine’s trek was a catalogue of images that captured the humanity of the victims and helped tell the stories behind the statistics.
“This will actually raise enough awareness that you’ll be able to help these people more,” says Callahan, who has since left Free the Slaves to start another nonprofit. “That’s the bet we made, and it was a good bet.”
TakePart caught up with Kristine at a December 13 forum sponsored by Artists for Human Rights, a group founded by actor Anne Archer, at the Bergamot Station Arts Center in Santa Monica, California. A selection of Kristine’s images was on display, documenting scenes ranging from children fishing on Lake Volta in Ghana, to the hands of silk dyers in India, to the workers at cabin restaurants in Nepal. In every scene, the subjects are working against their will.
“Slavery indeed hides in plain sight,” says Kristine.
Kristine readily admits that five years ago she was unaware of modern slavery. But after meeting a supporter of Free the Slaves at the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit, Kristine started researching the age-old problem. “I was so crushed and really horrified at my lack of knowing, especially because of what I do in the world,” she tells TakePart.
“Over the past couple years, there’s been more attention drawn to [slavery and forced labor]. I frankly think imagery is a large part of that because seeing is believing.”
Working with Free the Slaves staffers on the ground in slavery hotspots, Kristine found herself shooting in dicey situations. “I am not a photojournalist. My whole background is really in more of a fine art,” she says.
In most cases, she had to work fast.
“I would have windows as small as 10 or 15 minutes to get the images,” she says. “And then we’d have these signals to know when somebody was driving in or when there was something that was unsafe. They would alert me, and we would rush out.
“I feel like over the past couple years there’s been more attention drawn to [slavery and forced labor]. I frankly think imagery is a large part of that—because seeing is believing.”
Bonnie Abaunza, vice president of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Charitable Foundation, says that the power of images hasn’t diminished in the digital age.
“In this day and age, with 21 million living in slave-like conditions around the world, people can’t really grasp that concept,” says Abaunza, a former official with Amnesty International and vice president of Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company. “People need the visual medium. When you see these images, it finally begins to sink in with people.”
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