March 31, 2009

Lisa Kristine: images of remote indigenous people

Certain people tread some of the same territory that many anthropologists do. Tourists are, of course, often found in far away places that anthropologists travel to and work in. The same can be said for independent fine art photographers such as Lisa Kristine, "a San Francisco based photographer specializing in images of remote indigenous peoples." Her website is here.

I came across her work when I visited one of her galleries during my recent trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the annual SfAA meetings. My first impression was that Kristine is obviously a very talented photographer in a technical sense, but that her overall message is a little on the overly romantic if not oversimplified side. Her gallery is brimming with faces and images of "authentic" and "traditional" people from all over the world. Interestingly, none of the portraits have names attached to them. They are adorned with short descriptive captions and nothing more. But of course they are all for sale, and Kristine is adamant about the fact that she asks for permission before making her intimate images. The portraits, in many sense, are not of individuals, but instead turn individuals into romantic symbols that appeal to art collectors.

I was also able to sit down and watch this video while I was there (which can be found easily on YouTube):

On her gallery walls the phrase "In our difference we are one" is displayed above a photograph that depicts a deluge of people in India. Another phrase, above a sharp and intimate portrait of a young girl reads "Few artists know how to capture the diversity and dignity of indigenous people. Lisa Kristine's portraits exquisitely convey their silenced messages (Cosette Thompson, Amnesty International USA)".

Kristine, as well as the woman who was running the gallery the day I was there, claims that she works only with people who are "vulnerable to change". Her discourse creates images of people who exist outside of modernity, untouched by its influence (despite the incongruous fact that they happen to be staring at an expensive piece of photographic equipment--if they exist so far outside the modern world then how did this photographer find them?). Kristine goes a long way to depict her "traditional" subjects without any reference to any connections they may have with the modern world. I can't help but wonder about her process of photographing, and to what extent people perform the image that she wants to see (like the Maasai who willingly and knowingly perform for expectant tourists in Edward Bruner's Culture on Tour). Her project emphasizes documentation, and de-emphasizes its own commercial nature. The gallery presentations and discourse almost seem to suggest that by simply viewing these unnamed images people are able to gain a better connection and understanding of other people around the world.


Overall, I left wondering what the actual benefits were to the people in the photographs. Maybe Kristine pays them, or maybe she donates profits from her galleries to improve healthcare and education. Who knows. I certainly hope so. I can't really say that I was pleased with her project, despite the fact that she is clearly a fantastic photographer. It is difficult for me to get past her rhetoric, which sounds a little to much like the early 20th century discourse of Salvage Anthropologists, who went around the world trying to "save" cultural knowledge before it was destroyed by the very society that was trying to document it. Kristine, who seems to characterize herself as a benign documentary agent, is part of the change that she laments. And, by avoiding to present her subjects within the larger context that they actually live in, is only perpuating the idea that indigenous people are helpless, static, exotic people who can't cope with the so-called "modern" world.


Conor Muirhead said...


I thought you would write more though haha.

It seems Kristine pretends to "represent" these people but she is really just placing herself at the forefront of representation, thus getting all the credit while the actual individuals get nothing but their faces plastered on walls in homes.

Right now Im listening to Death by Stereo, and this line sounds appropriate:
"Youre [Kristine, of course] a bullshit salesman with a mouthful of samples"

R.A. said...

ya, i will definitely write more about this.

overall, i would be interested in knowing exactly what goes back to these communities. maybe i should try to contact her directly to ask.


Conor Muirhead said...

Definitely ask her. I am curious about the whole process actually- how she finds these individuals, how long the photo sessions are, what effect the cameras have on the communities, what they get in return, etc etc