By Elz Cuya
The experience of traveling has always been a great mentor for me, a far greater mentor than academia. ~
Earlier this month, the State of the World Forum convened in San Francisco, an event that is meant to inspire discussions on human rights, global security and social change. In attendance were international political leaders, Nobel Prize Laureates, world-renowned activists and a photographer named Lisa Kristine Huff.
It’s no surprise that Lisa was invited to show her work at the State of the World Forum, with her diverse collection of captivating images of people around the world. People tend to respond to her work immediately. Lisa’s photos are so intriguing, and so deeply striking, it’s easy to make a sudden connection with a subject halfway around the globe.
She always had an interest in photography. Even in her early teens, she enjoyed photographing people. When Lisa was 18, she left the country and traveled to Greece, Israel and Egypt, then spent over four years in Asia, where she immersed herself in world philosophies and religions, all the while taking photos of people whose lives were the antithesis of her life in America. “The experience of traveling has always been a great mentor for me,” Lisa says, “A far greater mentor than academia.”
Although Lisa has journeyed to more countries than most, her experiences only feed her desire for more travel. “Our planet is so immensely interesting. I want to experience it. For me, it’s a natural feeling. I have to travel and I have to share it.”
Among her many magnificent portraits is one entitled Red Calm (above), a photo of a Buddhist monk wearing a crimson robe taken in Bagan, Burma. Early one morning before dawn, the monk, who had just been meditating for hours inside of the temple walked beneath a large hanging tree. Lisa takes a shot, and beautifully captures an image of flaring and vibrant red, yet paradoxically calm, satiated and peaceful.
The shot was taken just outside of the Ananda Temple, a masterpiece of Mon architecture. Completed in 1091, the temple was so beautiful and unique, King Kyanzittha executed the temple’s architect to ensure that the monument could not be duplicated.
Another remarkable photo is Indian Princess (left). The shot was taken when Lisa visited Rajasthan, India’s most visited state. Here in the land of great palaces and Jain temples, she came across a procession in honor of Shiva’s birthday. A little girl wearing a gold sari and heavily adorned in jewelry was being carried through the streets on a small throne. “Although she is inundated by the crowd throwing marigold flower petals above her head, I could see that she is very much inside of herself,” Lisa says, “She emanates a royal presence.”
To seize the perfect image, Lisa does not shoot rolls of film on one face. “I just take a few photographs. I don’t want the camera to change the person’s attitude. I want them to remain in their own element and not respond to mine.” Undoubtedly, she succeeds. “I focus on individuals who are in their practice. I look for the light in somebody, a lived-in face, someone who has lived intensely. And it doesn’t have anything to do with attractiveness or beauty in an aesthetic sense. It’s an intention I see in them.”
Her last trip took her to East Africa, where she and a friend visited Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Zanzibar and Egypt. In the midst of Ethiopia’s civil war, it was very difficult for Lisa to get around. The bus lines weren’t running and all of the gas was rationed for the military. Finally, Lisa found a man who was able to escort her through Omo Valley. “It was a very rugged ride, four-wheeling through miles and miles of land with no roads.” They traveled for weeks, in temperatures that reached 100 degrees even in the shade. “We had to find different tribesman from place to place to locate our way through.”
When they finally reached their destination, Lisa was amazed. “It was phenomenal to go to a place where the individuals are still hunters and gatherers. They barter with shells, goat hides and gourds. They had no longing to change their life in any way. They didn’t care to be like me, or to have what I had. They had so much grace and so much dignity. It blew me away, how they were living their life just as they did a millennium ago.”
In Africa, Lisa found it necessary to have a translator. “I wanted to explain to them what a camera was and how I was using that device. I wanted to share with them what I was doing, not just take their pictures.”
She recalls a conversation she had in Tanzania with the chief of the Moran (the warrior stage of the Samburu tribe). “He asked me what my ‘tribe’ was like. The fact that he would refer to my people as my ‘tribe’ was just marvelous. It’s fascinating simply talking to people and finding out what their priorities are, and how different they are from yours. We talked about everything from politics to computers.”
Certainly, the spots she visited in Africa were among the most remote and inaccessible. The heat was merciless and nearly unbearable. Many people would shy away from traveling to such places, and Lisa is often asked if it’s safe for a woman to travel alone. “People are afraid to visit Third World countries, especially countries where there’s poverty.” But Lisa feels very safe in other parts of the world. To some extent, she admits, she even feels safer overseas than here at home. “Although I love America and I know it is a great country, we live in a very volatile society. There’s a lot of friction and aggression here. And it isn’t based on politics like in other countries, but rather a disparity of income, and anger that really has no purpose. I don’t feel that when I’m abroad. I find that in other countries the values are still intact, and so pure.”
Lisa’s next exploration will take her to Guatemala and Ecuador. In unfluctuating awe with the people of the world, Lisa continues to feel at home with the world. And with her photos, she shares that home with us.
Feature Photo: Sunrise
Update: This may look old-fashioned now, but when we first started posting photos most images were scanned in from film negatives, and the resolution on the internet was very poor. Images needed to be only a few kilobytes so that you could download them with a phone modem; now they are thousands of times bigger.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu, also known as “The Lost City of the Incas,” is South America’s best known archaeological site, and home to many llamas and alpacas. The photographer had just walked the Inca trails, and at seven in the morning, as the sun rose up above the mountains, she captured this stunning image.
To see more of Lisa’s work, visit www.migrationphotography.com.
Exploring India. (Fodor’s Travel Publications, 1998)
Southeast Asia. (APA Publications, 1999)