• the pictorial mag

in conversation with: CHRISTINA SIMONS


Susan Pulis provides water and care to traumatised Kangaroos that survived the fires. Susan Pulis, a wildlife carer and founder of the Raymond Island Koala and Wildlife Shelter in Waterholes, Victoria, Australia on Monday the 6th of January 2020. Shot for the NYTimes.
Susan Pulis provides water and care to traumatised Kangaroos that survived the fires. Susan Pulis, a wildlife carer and founder of the Raymond Island Koala and Wildlife Shelter in Waterholes, Victoria, Australia on Monday the 6th of January 2020. Shot for the NYTimes.


Award winning international documentary photographer Christina Simons has been committed to discovering stories and sharing them with others using her camera. Part American and Icelandic, now residing in Australia, Christina is a true citizen of the world speaking multiple languages, and having worked in the visual arts industry for over twenty five years, she is a technical master of imagery. With a passion for justice and compulsion to observe, Christina has stuck through the highs and lows of independent work to produce personal projects she is truly proud of. Her commitment has led to series such as “The Haiti Project” on children in domestic servitude, Women’s health in the Philippines and Aboriginal Education in Australia; not to mention her solo-exhibition and multi-award winning series “Running to Nowhere” on Central American Refugees. Her curiosity of subcultures has produced projects such as award winning series "Derby Girls" and multi-award winning series "Lil Bullfighters" of Mexico.


Christina's work traverses many interests including travel, lifestyle and portraiture and is represented in publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian UK as well as working with several NGOs such as Medicines Sans Frontiers and UNICEF. So it is with great honour we speak to Christina about how her journey into photography began, her inspirations and experiences, and how she feel compelled to use her work to tell the stories of those who do not have the means to do so themselves.



Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born in Seattle, WA and went to grade school in Milwaukee, WI but spent between 3-5 months of nearly every year of my life in Iceland until I was 16, when I went to boarding school in Colorado from the ages of 16-18. After I graduated high school, I left the US and moved to London to attend Central St Martins and then Ravensbourne University. My parents relocated to Iceland at that time, so that has since become the ‘home’ that I visit. When I graduated with an honours degree in Visual Communication Design I went on to work in film and television post production for 5 years, promising myself that when I worked out what I really wanted to do with my life, I would quit post production to do that! I moved to Australia in 2001 to work on the Ned Kelly film and when that wrapped up, I made the jump to photography. I did love working in post production but after spending a few years behind a computer monitor working on other people’s images, I realised that what I really wanted was to make my own.



An aerial image of bushfire ravaged Kangaroo Island, South Australia on Thursday the 16th of January 2020. Shot for the NYTimes.
An aerial image of bushfire ravaged Kangaroo Island, South Australia on Thursday the 16th of January 2020. Shot for the NYTimes.

What was that moment that sparked your interest to pursue photography as a profession, and in specific documentaries?


My first camera was a Polaroid camera that I got for my 10th birthday - I loved the magic of freezing a moment by simply clicking a button. Not long after, my cousin introduced me to the darkroom. He told me that he had ‘magical photographic paper’ and that he would show me how it all worked but to ‘NOT open the paper until he had time’ to teach me. Of course, as soon as I got a moment alone with it, I opened the packet and saw nothing but blank white paper! I flicked through the pages and nothing happened, so I put it back feeling quite disappointed. A few days later my cousin came to me furious, asking if I’d opened it. The magic paper had given me away as it had all been exposed to the light that I’d let in, rendering it un-magical. He was very annoyed and told me he couldn’t show me the magic because I’d ruined it.


Not to be dissuaded, I took photography classes and electives all the way through school, high school and my university studies. It was like a constant thread that had weaved its way throughout my life – but for some reason I ignored the quiet voice inside me that told me photography was actually what I wanted to be doing. I only really listened to that voice after I’d left university and spent 5 years working in Post Production; when the quiet urge to become a photographer had become a loud and painful longing.


My late American father was a doctor who specialised in clubfoot corrective surgery for children. It was he who influenced my humanitarian interests. He travelled the world for conferences and to give lectures, often taking us with him so we could learn about other cultures and countries. I feel that I can attribute my passion for travel, exploration and human connection to these early trips.


When I was about 12 years old, my father received a thank you card from a man living in a leper colony in India. The man had asked someone else to write the card for him as he’d lost his fingers to the disease. My father had corrected his daughter’s clubfoot without charge. The man was deeply grateful that his child had a chance at a normal future and could provide for the family. My father wept as he read it to me and in that moment, I understood that making a positive difference to one person can profoundly impact those around them.


I am not an academic person - becoming a doctor like my father was never on the cards for me, so it is with my camera that I try to interpret the world we live in. I feel compelled to use my work to tell the stories of those who do not have the means to do so themselves; to convey their hopes and fears.



Children attend Uighur language school in Gilles Plains, Adelaide, South Australia on Saturday the 23rd of March 2019. The students and their mothers celebrate their participation in an international Uighur community competition called Uyghuryar.  Shot for the NYTimes March 2019.
Children attend Uighur language school in Gilles Plains, Adelaide, South Australia on Saturday the 23rd of March 2019. The students and their mothers celebrate their participation in an international Uighur community competition called Uyghuryar. Shot for the NYTimes March 2019.


Talk to us about some of your other projects. For you personally, why are making these photographs important? What do you want viewers to understand through your images?

I’m a deeply curious person. I want to know and understand the world around me at a deeper level than what I can see on television or the internet the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of their world better. I want the firsthand encounter to be able to answer my own questions about the cultures, anthropology and the psychology of people I photograph. I sometimes think perhaps my photography is secondary to this desire.


I have the privilege to gain access to and meet some very unique people in my work. I feel that it’s my responsibility to ensure that the stories I am entrusted with are told with honesty and integrity. I think with this privilege I get to see and hear things many others don’t, so I do my best to try to expose stories otherwise undiscovered and frequently misunderstood.



Sondos Qur'aan praying inside Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday the 23rd of August 2019. Shot for the NYTimes.
Sondos Qur'aan praying inside Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday the 23rd of August 2019. Shot for the NYTimes.

I try my hardest in all my stories to ensure my opinions and judgments take a back seat to the story itself. I try to remain impartial and tell the story as it presents with no projections on my part. It’s really important to me to try to do this because it’s from this place I gain a deep holistic understanding of what is happening. I want the subject (person) to feel unguarded and unjudged and feel able to share as openly as possible what is really happening for them. Likewise, I want the viewer to experience an untainted perspective and to form their own opinion. This is not to say that I don’t have an opinion of my own – it is to say that I don’t want the subject or the viewer of my work to be impacted by my opinion.


For example with my Little Bullfighters series – if I had approached this story with critical judgments of what they were doing I would have learnt and seen very little. I went in with curiosity and an open mind to fully understand how and why they were training to become bullfighters at such a young age. I then felt that sharing those images with the same impartiality would provide people with opinions across the spectrum to engage with the series more openly.



Salvador, aged 6, sits on his bed in anticipation of witnessing the afternoon bullfight at Plaza de Toros Mexico. Behind him are several ribbons, each symbolizing a bull dedicated to him by his matador heroes. Salvador's family is wealthy and are staunch Catholics. They believe God will protect him from any harm. From the series ‘Little Bullfighters’ a personal project. Shot in December 2015.
Salvador, aged 6, sits on his bed in anticipation of witnessing the afternoon bullfight at Plaza de Toros Mexico. Behind him are several ribbons, each symbolizing a bull dedicated to him by his matador heroes. Salvador's family is wealthy and are staunch Catholics. They believe God will protect him from any harm. From the series ‘Little Bullfighters’ a personal project. Shot in December 2015.
Cristóbal Arenas Moncayo is 10 years old: “To fight a bull is something beautiful, there are a lot of emotions… adrenaline, excitement and the danger is always there. As a torero you are always afraid but this is normal, it makes you stronger and helps you to take control of your fear… from that point you move ahead.” From the series ‘Little Bullfighters’ a personal project. Shot in June 2016.
Cristóbal Arenas Moncayo is 10 years old: “To fight a bull is something beautiful, there are a lot of emotions… adrenaline, excitement and the danger is always there. As a torero you are always afraid but this is normal, it makes you stronger and helps you to take control of your fear… from that point you move ahead.” From the series ‘Little Bullfighters’ a personal project. Shot in June 2016.

What kind of difficulties have you encountered as an outsider when working on your documentary projects?


I think the biggest difficulty I’ve experienced is the language barrier. I speak some Spanish but when I need to understand nuance, subtlety and more complex concepts and vocabulary, I’ve been let down! The consequence of this has been that I now travel with someone whose English is better than my Spanish so that things don’t get lost in translation. Likewise, when I’ve been to countries like Papua New Guinea it’s absolutely vital that the translator I’m working with can speak both languages fluently so that I don’t misunderstand anything. I still spend time chatting to people but I make sure that when I’m recording someone’s account of their experience, I use a trusted translator so that I don’t miss anything.

Another difficulty I face is reluctance or fear. Sometimes, the people I’m speaking with are too frightened to talk to me or let me photograph them. In fact, that is quite common. I don’t necessarily think it’s due to me being an outsider, more so me being a photographer. I think this would be the case if I was a local photographer as well.


I have had people lie to me, like the lovely women at Casa Xochiquetzal, a retirement home for sex workers in Mexico. Their truth isn’t always something they want to expose. I discovered that for some, lying enabled them to hide a deeply traumatic story while for others, it was pure entertainment! That can be hard and frustrating as it means I can’t use the story they’ve given me, although I think in this particular case it was pretty understandable. I mean, who am I to them but a privileged white woman who has appeared from nowhere to ask them about the sordid details of their lives? I totally respect that sentiment - it is a strange position for them to be in and all I can do is hope that the telling of their story through my photographs results in a valuable and positive outcome for them. Ultimately, my work was to be used in a fundraising campaign for the casa, so I hoped that my work could directly impact their daily lives.



Sixty-nine year old Patricia poses proudly with photos from her days as a Pin-up model. She has lost the ability to hear, speak and see out of one eye due to beatings she sustained.  Patricia resides in Casa Xochiquetzal, a retirement home in a dilapidated Spanish casona in one of Mexico City's roughest barrios.  The Casa is named after the Aztec goddess of sex and love and its residents are retired sex workers.  From the series ‘Casa Xochiquetzal’, a personal project. Shot in Mexico City, June 2017.
Sixty-nine year old Patricia poses proudly with photos from her days as a Pin-up model. She has lost the ability to hear, speak and see out of one eye due to beatings she sustained. Patricia resides in Casa Xochiquetzal, a retirement home in a dilapidated Spanish casona in one of Mexico City's roughest barrios. The Casa is named after the Aztec goddess of sex and love and its residents are retired sex workers. From the series ‘Casa Xochiquetzal’, a personal project. Shot in Mexico City, June 2017.
Normita, aged 82, sits on her bed where her stuffed teddy bear also rests in her bedroom in Casa Xochiquetzal, Mexico City, June 2016. From the series ‘Casa Xochiquetzal’, a personal project. Shot in Mexico City, June 2017.
Normita, aged 82, sits on her bed where her stuffed teddy bear also rests in her bedroom in Casa Xochiquetzal, Mexico City, June 2016. From the series ‘Casa Xochiquetzal’, a personal project. Shot in Mexico City, June 2017.

Your work ranges from photojournalism to portraits of celebrities and food, how do you define yourself as a photographer?


I primarily consider myself a documentary reportage photographer and visual storyteller. I focus on humanitarian issues but I also am really fond of exploring human behavior within sub-cultures and/or groups of people who have underreported interests. I love working as a photojournalist for the New York Times and other news groups. Within both of these genres I shoot portraiture so shooting celebrity portraits isn’t much of a leap.


When I first started out as a photographer, I got a job with a food and hospitality magazine in which I photographed portraits, food and lifestyle imagery. I had always set my sights on documentary photography but especially in those early days, that work did not pay the bills. As the documentary and photojournalistic work picked up, the commercial work petered off. There was a time where the only way I could support my projects was to shoot commercially. I still take on commercial work when it comes along as I enjoy doing it, but I mostly identify with storytelling through imagery and that is what most of my clients hire me for now.



The colourful girls of Derby world wait to start their bout.  From the series ‘Derby Girls’ Shot for the Big Issue in January 2011.
The colourful girls of Derby World wait to start their bout. From the series ‘Derby Girls’ Shot for the Big Issue in January 2011.
Two Roller Derby girls fly through the air as they crash into each other during a bout. From the series ‘Derby Girls’, shot for the Big Issue in January 2011.
Two Roller Derby girls fly through the air as they crash into each other during a bout. From the series ‘Derby Girls’, shot for the Big Issue in January 2011.

What are some of your best and worst memories as a photographer?

My ‘on the job’ happiest moments are when the people I’m photographing and I find connection - something that ties us together, a recognition of our humanness, our alikeness, no matter how unlikely that might seem. It's in these moments that both of our defences come down and our more authentic selves show up. Then they are no longer the subject and I’m no longer the photographer, but a friend. In that place, we create the storytelling together.


Building a rapport makes a difference with celebrities as well. I remember shooting Anthony Bourdain after he’d worked a shift at Fenix restaurant in Melbourne, Australia. My colleague and I were second in line to photograph and interview him after his shift - he was tired and didn’t want to be there. Ed Charles, the writer, began asking him what his least favourite food was and he said: ‘Icelandic rotted shark’. Ed and I laughed and told him that I was in fact Icelandic and this started a great conversation about his travels in Iceland and the food there. Then we discovered that we had both fallen in love with Laos and its people. This shifted the whole vibe of the shoot from him feeling annoyed and standoffish to finding mutual ground to bond over. I was no longer a photographer and he was no longer a celebrity - we were just people hanging out having a good conversation.





Another highlight I can recall was in October 2019, when I opened a huge exhibition at the Museo de Arte e Historia de Guanajuato in Mexico with Médicos Sin Fronteras (Doctors without Borders) on my ‘Running to Nowhere’ series which focused on the plight of refugees in contemporary Central America. The show contained nearly 100 pieces from this body of work. It was exhibited in a space of 1000m2 and it was stunningly curated by Israel Arenas with the vision of the viewer experiencing some of the intensity that the refugees experience. It was grander than any exhibition I could have ever imagined for my work and an incredible moment to have hundreds of people and press at the opening. In that moment, the stories I worked so hard to share were seen and heard again and again by thousands of people. I returned home feeling that if I never held a camera again – I would have felt complete satisfaction with what I’d achieved.

Of course, I still feel that deep satisfaction, but the exhibition was meant to travel to the United States and then Covid occurred. The Central American refugee plight endures and so I still feel compelled to continue to press on with the series.


*Editor's note: Read the Pictorial Story "Running to Nowhere" by Christina here on The Pictorial-List.



A Honduran refugee continues his journey after resting at the Alberge in Ixtapec, Mexico. Included in the series ‘Running to Nowhere’. Shot for Médicos Sin Fronteras, January 2016.
A Honduran refugee continues his journey after resting at the Alberge in Ixtapec, Mexico. Included in the series ‘Running to Nowhere’. Shot for Médicos Sin Fronteras, January 2016.
Prisoners locked up in Danli Prison, Honduras. From the series ‘Running to Nowhere’, May 2017.
Prisoners locked up in Danli Prison, Honduras. From the series ‘Running to Nowhere’, May 2017.
An ex-sicario from Honduras; this elderly man now seeks refuge in the Alberge in Ixtapec, Mexico. Included in the series ‘Running to Nowhere’, shot for Médicos Sin Fronteras, January 2016.
An ex-sicario from Honduras; this elderly man now seeks refuge in the Alberge in Ixtapec, Mexico. Included in the series ‘Running to Nowhere’, shot for Médicos Sin Fronteras, January 2016.
A refugee sitting in a refuge shelter in Tenosique, Mexico. Waiting for a refugee visa or a humanitarian visa takes up to three months, and there is no guarantee. This sort of physical and mental flux exasperates the trauma and difficulties refugees have already endured. Their fate is unknown and possibly forces them to return to where they fled from.  Included in the series ‘Running to Nowhere’, shot for Médicos Sin Fronteras , January 2016.
A refugee sitting in a refuge shelter in Tenosique, Mexico. Waiting for a refugee visa or a humanitarian visa takes up to three months, and there is no guarantee. This sort of physical and mental flux exasperates the trauma and difficulties refugees have already endured. Their fate is unknown and possibly forces them to return to where they fled from. Included in the series ‘Running to Nowhere’, shot for Médicos Sin Fronteras , January 2016.

The darker moments have been moments that have come from experiences where I have felt that I was in danger or that those around me might be at risk. The first time this happened was when I was in Haiti in 2006. We had met a man pretending to care for the street children who had previously been ‘Restaveks’ (children given or sold into a life of domestic slavery). We interviewed a few kids living on the streets who told us this man had sexually abused them. This man was directly connected to the gangs in the slums of Port au Prince. He had weapons and a lot of support. He knew where I was staying and continued to try to contact me. I won’t go into any deeper details, but I felt scared for myself and for my fixer who lived there and had a family there. That stuff stays with you long after you leave and takes time to settle psychologically. It takes less time for me now but frightening and stressful moments whilst working have happened on a few other occasions. I see it as a part of the job I have chosen to do and the stories I choose to cover. It is a choice and I wouldn’t change a thing. So I’ve learned to manage it with self care and time out.



The older girls of the orphanage Foyer des Enfants play and sing.  Sourette owns and runs a private orphanage called Foyer des Enfants.  The day I met the children of orphanage Foyer des Enfants, the children hadn’t eaten in 3 days. There are 35 children at this orphanage and it takes a mere $50US per month to feed them all.  Most of the children at this orphanage have lived as a Restavek .  The orphanage was flattened in the 2010 earthquake and the last I heard was that while the children and Sourette survived, they were living on the streets. From the series ‘The Haiti Project’, a personal project shot in Port au Prince, Haiti, March 2006.
The older girls of the orphanage Foyer des Enfants play and sing. Sourette owns and runs a private orphanage called Foyer des Enfants. The day I met the children of orphanage Foyer des Enfants, the children hadn’t eaten in 3 days. There are 35 children at this orphanage and it takes a mere $50US per month to feed them all. Most of the children at this orphanage have lived as a Restavek . The orphanage was flattened in the 2010 earthquake and the last I heard was that while the children and Sourette survived, they were living on the streets. From the series ‘The Haiti Project’, a personal project shot in Port au Prince, Haiti, March 2006.
The countryside, near Gonaives. The deforested mountains had no topsoil to absorb or slow the rushing water that besieged Gonaives during Hurricane Jeanne in 2004. When the rain ceased, more than 3,000 people had been killed, many washed out to sea. Thousands of people were made homeless. From the series ‘The Haiti Project’, a personal project shot in Gonaives, Haiti, March 2006.
The countryside, near Gonaives. The deforested mountains had no topsoil to absorb or slow the rushing water that besieged Gonaives during Hurricane Jeanne in 2004. When the rain ceased, more than 3,000 people had been killed, many washed out to sea. Thousands of people were made homeless. From the series ‘The Haiti Project’, a personal project shot in Gonaives, Haiti, March 2006.
A street boy eats a mango. From the series ‘The Haiti Project’ a personal project shot in Cite Soleil, Haiti, March 2006.
A street boy eats a mango. From the series ‘The Haiti Project’ a personal project shot in Cite Soleil, Haiti, March 2006.

Did you have a mentor? Do you have any favourite artists/photographers?

I’ve never had a mentor...no...but I’ve had several people who have believed in me and supported me on my journey and to whom I'm extremely grateful.


I have a lot of favorite photographers but my all time favorite photographer is Sebastiao Salgado. I feel that when I look at his work it reaches into me, it captures my feelings, my heart and I am deeply moved – his are some of the most beautiful and touching images I have ever seen.


I love the greats like Mary Ellen Mark, Sally Mann, Werner Bischof, Saul Leiter, Alex Webb, Diane Arbus, Elliott Erwitt, Josef Koudelka, Vivian Maier, Rene Burri… etc. There is a lot of new talent and imagery out there now. The more people I encounter on Instagram the more blown away I am at the talent in this world.



Eight month pregnant Sonia with one of her two daughters Daniella, age 11. Sonia grew up within the gang world and knew all the members in her neighbourhood. Her partner, a MS13 member and the father of the unborn child has been in prison for 5 of their 6 year relationship. Their baby was conceived during a conjugal visit. The MS13s support her while her partner is in prison.  When asked how she feels about the circumstances, Daniella tearfully said, "He (her mother’s partner) is more of a father to me than my biological father ever was. I love him and I miss him." Daniella’s biological father left when she was 7 months old. From the series ‘Resilient rɪˈzɪlɪənt/ adjective: (of a person) able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.  Synonyms: strong, tough, hardy’, a personal project shot in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, January 2018.
Eight month pregnant Sonia with one of her two daughters Daniella, age 11. Sonia grew up within the gang world and knew all the members in her neighbourhood. Her partner, a MS13 member and the father of the unborn child has been in prison for 5 of their 6 year relationship. Their baby was conceived during a conjugal visit. The MS13s support her while her partner is in prison. When asked how she feels about the circumstances, Daniella tearfully said, "He (her mother’s partner) is more of a father to me than my biological father ever was. I love him and I miss him." Daniella’s biological father left when she was 7 months old. From the series ‘Resilient rɪˈzɪlɪənt/ adjective: (of a person) able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. Synonyms: strong, tough, hardy’, a personal project shot in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, January 2018.
Maria Juarez is only 53 years old. Her son is 18 years old and a MS13 member. He was arrested for possession of guns. On this day she traveled two hours to El Poso prison to visit him, however she is unable to see him due to a government crackdown on gang member inmates.  Maria had to leave her severely disabled daughter at home, tied to a chair for several hours whilst visiting her son. She is frightened because she has no money or way to feed herself and her daughter. She fears she won't see her son again. From the series ‘Resilient rɪˈzɪlɪənt/ adjective: (of a person) able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.  Synonyms: strong, tough, hardy’, a personal project shot in Llama, Honduras, January 2018.
Maria Juarez is only 53 years old. Her son is 18 years old and a MS13 member. He was arrested for possession of guns. On this day she traveled two hours to El Poso prison to visit him, however she is unable to see him due to a government crackdown on gang member inmates. Maria had to leave her severely disabled daughter at home, tied to a chair for several hours whilst visiting her son. She is frightened because she has no money or way to feed herself and her daughter. She fears she won't see her son again. From the series ‘Resilient rɪˈzɪlɪənt/ adjective: (of a person) able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. Synonyms: strong, tough, hardy’, a personal project shot in Llama, Honduras, January 2018.

Do you pr