Polish photographer Karolina Jonderko has been experimenting with cameras for nearly a decade now, exploring her home country and nostalgic themes through self-portrait and intimate shots that tell individual stories. Recently, she was moved by her own experience of loss to explore the spaces – both physical and emotional – left when a person goes missing. The resulting images of rooms frozen in time show how many find it impossible to move on when a family member’s fate is unknown. We caught up with Karolina to uncover the personal tale behind the project.
Hi Karolina! Can you tell us a bit about your background?
My journey into photography began when my father gave me his old Russian Zenit camera. I was 18 years old. I took pictures of everything around me – it was just for fun. After a year my dad bought me a digital camera, because the costs of buying, developing and printing film were too high. I wanted to learn more about the tool I was using so I decided to do a one-year photography course. At the same time I was studying English at university. I was supposed to become an English teacher!
When I finished the course I went to the Warsaw Film School, because I felt I needed to learn more. Then my mom got sick, and those journeys (twice a month) to Warsaw were escapes from what was going on in my house. She passed away three months before my graduation. Soon after I began to take pictures that I never thought I could take. They were far away from what I used to do. With a portfolio I made in four months I decided to take my chances and tried to get into the school of my dreams: the Polish National Film, Television and Theatre School in Lodz. I passed all the exams and ended up with the most incredible people who changed my life.
Your recent project Lost focuses on missing people in Poland. What inspired this?
While I was on a train home once I read the Alice Sebold novel The Lovely Bones. It’s about a teenage girl, Susie, who, after being murdered, becomes the narrator. She describes everything that’s happening with her friends and family after she goes missing. There was one situation that triggered the idea. Susie’s father finds her brother in her bedroom and shouts at him to leave everything in the room untouched because she might come home any time. That moment brought me back to my situation – I didn’t want to change anything after my mom passed away. The same goes with my granny’s house. It’s still in the same condition as she left it. I wondered if people whose loved one goes missing do the same thing.
I came out of the train in Katowice and while changing platforms I came across a wall covered with pictures of missing people. I stood there for a while watching if any passers-by take a minute to take a look at them. No one did.
I came home and began wondering how I could get in touch with their families. Out of nowhere, three days later, I got an email from the Itaka Foundation (the only organization in Poland helping to search for missing people) with a proposal to take part in their campaign about depression.
At that moment I knew I had to do the project. I met with the director of the foundation and described my idea. They loved it and promised to help me get in touch with the families. It took me a while to gather money for this project, but the moment I got a grant I began my journey around the country.
Was it easy to convince the families to let you photograph their homes?
The first contact with the families was made by volunteers from Itaka. Then they gave me their phone numbers and I was arranging the meetings. The most important part of this project was the conversations with those families. I never got straight to taking pictures. First I listened to their stories. Those were very emotional moments. I was deeply affected by them. I also shared with them what I’ve been through and the purpose of taking those pictures.
I started this projects with three goals in mind: an intervention, to reinvigorate the efforts to find the missing; prevention, to build awareness of the huge pain caused when someone goes missing; awareness, to bring this issue to people’s attention, not only in Poland, but all over the world.
A number of your other projects are also based in Poland – are you often inspired by your home country?
I wanted to explore what’s around me. At the same time the feeling of confidence in my own country helped me to make those projects. I didn’t need to learn about the culture, as I would have to when doing project in a foreign country.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m focusing on finishing my MA. I also have two new projects in mind, this time in the UK.
Thanks for talking to Canvas, Karolina, we hope it goes well in the UK.