There is something in the work of photographer Karen Jerzyk that cannot be put into words. The otherness of a world created from the abandoned and discarded is captured with a deep, dark softness. Each image tells us a story only our emotions can read. Death & the Maiden are honoured that this week Karen shares her journey onward from her father’s sudden death in 2011. Her soul and life forever shifted in that period of time in a way that would truly change her outlook and her art forever.
– Karen Jerzyk –
“An incredibly introverted, awkward wallflower”
Karen is a self-taught, internationally published photographer from the Greater Boston area. Her trademark of shooting elaborate scenes in abandoned buildings eventually got her arrested in August 2014. Karen describes this as “the best thing to ever happen to me” after national news outlets picked up the story. When she finds a location, Karen will quite literally spends hours cleaning up and restoring it to what it may have looked like, paying attention to the smallest details such as placement of items in the room.
In 2011, Karen’s father passed away unexpectedly. Her world during and after this event has contributed to what is seen in her portfolio today. Feelings and experiences that could never build into words. Karen realized she had two choices: drown in her own darkness and succumb to depression or push on and fully submerge herself in telling an ongoing story of her internal struggles.
She currently travels the US, photographing people for various projects.
For as long as I can remember, I have always felt alienated. Many people say that, but few understand. As in, I’ve seen people with handfuls of close friends they’ve had since childhood say they “feel like they don’t belong”- like an outcast. But no, I don’t believe them. My alienation runs true and deep. This isn’t a contest, rather, it’s a fact. I’m just one of those people who seems destined to forever be treated like garbage by 98 percent of the people I come in contact with. This has been true in the past, as well as the present, and more than likely the future. People come into my life, do something terrible to me, and exit without a sound. For a good chunk of my life, I chalked this up to the kind of “artist’s suffering” that I needed to fuel my fire. I wanted to be a creator, but deep down knew I wasn’t fitting the bill. I tried drawing, but sucked. Sculpting. Painting. I would try it, look at other creators around me, and give myself a harsh, realistic critique: I sucked. So what’s a girl to do when she has all this pent up creativity, a sort of constant underlying depression from people being shitty to her for most of her life, and no way to channel it?
Part of this riddle was solved in 2003 when my parents gifted me with my first digital camera for graduation. I had never been much into photography growing up but suddenly I loved it. From 2003 until around 2010 my passion was concert photography. There was nothing like the feeling of getting a photo pass and the rush of shooting a live band. It gave me a purpose. I felt like I belonged. But something was still missing. There was some sort of insatiable desire deep inside me that wasn’t being filled. Around 2009, a friend had suggested that I tried shooting models. “What?!?!” I asked. “That’s cheesy. No”. But I did. I started shooting models. Really, really shitty photos of models. I also didn’t have a studio, and never in this lifetime could afford my own, so I desperately searched for “cool locations” to shoot on the internet. That’s when I came across a photo of a theater that was in an abandoned asylum in CT.
I was floored. My mouth dropped. I remembered thinking “Holy shit, places like this exist?!?” And there started my undying love for abandonments. For a couple years I was shooting whoever I could in whatever abandoned place I could. Nude shoots and weird shoots and lots of shoots that just didn’t make sense. I guess visually my photos were sort of interesting, typically an odd wardrobe set to the background of an extremely cool dilapidated asylum or house, but still, they were just photos. Something someone would look at passively and think “meh, that’s sort of cool” and move on without wanting to look for any longer or pay much more mind to it. Things went on like this until May 3rd, 2011.
On May 3rd, 2011, I fell asleep at 4am. I couldn’t sleep the night of May 2nd into May 3rd. I was in the “exhausted deep sleep” phase when I woke up at about 4:45am to my mother screaming. I bolted up but was confused, jumping out of bed and running out of my room as if on autopilot. My body was awake but my brain was somewhere else. I remember hearing “ITS YOUR FATHER”, searching desperately for the house phone to dial 911 (my mother had recently moved the location of it and I was scrambling to find it), running by the bathroom door and seeing what appeared to be a movie projected in front of my eyes. The brightness of the bathroom speared me: the vision of my mother kneeling in front of the tub with my father laid out in it, his head slouched over his body. I called 911 to give them the details. I mechanically moved everything from our front door to the bathroom door without being told. I quickly and calmly answered the operator’s questions as my mother frantically screamed “WHERE ARE THEY”, her voice seemingly reverbing somewhere in a dark distance.
The paramedics came along with a fire truck. They pulled my father out of the tub and into the dining room, where his lifeless, naked body slipped through their fingers. His head was the first to hit the floor. A hollow, loud thud. The moment air was taken from me and I felt my first moment of true emptiness. True helplessness. A dark, weighted emptiness that I will never in this lifetime be able to describe. Surely, a sick joke. I looked to my mother, hoping she hadn’t seen. She had. They resuscitated him, and shoved him in the ambulance. I mustachioed fireman looked at me with sad, understanding eyes. As if he didn’t know what to say. We both knew it was bad. I wanted there to be hope at the hospital, but deep down, I was smart enough to know it was bad. “Is the stove off?” he asked, his sad eyes keeping my gaze. “Yes”, I mumbled. “Thank you”.
That morning in the hospital was long, and not much is remembered from those two days, or the year following my father’s death. Unbeknownst to us, my father had suffered a heart attack days prior to collapsing in the tub. The heart attack had created a blood clot that went straight up to the base of his brain, instantly collapsing him. Never to open his eyes again. Being an only child, I had to make the terrible decision with my mother to take him off life support. This was the moment I dreamed about since I was about three. Not dream of in the sense of dreaming about a wedding, but being a very conscious child, I would look at family photos and cry. I would always think “These photos someday won’t be true- someday some of my family will not be able to be in photos”. I would cry thinking about it. It was the day I dreaded and thought of often growing up, and that day had finally come. It had come strong and harsh with no remorse.
On May 4th, around 4pm, the hospital took my father off of life support. They suggested we leave the room for a bit for them to do it, so I walked in a fog to the elevator to stand outside and get some fresh air. The elevator doors opened and there, in front of me, was a lady with a gigantic harp. I rubbed my eyes, I had not gotten any sleep the night before. I assumed I was hallucinating from being so exhausted. I remember her putting her hand on my shoulder and asking me if I wanted her to play in my loved one’s room. “Yes”, I mumbled, as I stumbled into the elevator. As the doors closed she told me that she would be waiting for me in the hall. Come to find out, I wasn’t hallucinating.
I came back up to watch my father die. I looked at my mother with tears streaming down my face and said “if there is a god, he will make this quick”. Each breath was gurgled and labored as my father animalistically gasped for air, me holding my own breath in time with his as if between each breath he took would bring the most important news of my life. I heard machines and I heard suffering. Machines and suffering reverberating in my ears in my skull in my chest in my soul. THE HARPIST. I forgot to see the harpist. I went into the hall and she was there, silently wheeling her giant harp toward the room.
She came to the edge of my father’s bed and played. The sound was like a million fingertips up my spine. A vessel for my tears. A reminder that I was human and I was on this earth and this was all happening. Her beautiful music drowned out the machines and the sound of my father suffering. His white skin a canvas for each note to land on, bringing him to peace. Never in my life could I verbalize that moment- a sadness and a beauty that grew so deep that even the darkness knew not where to find it. A miraculous heaviness I had never felt before, like ships sailing all around me into a brightness I couldn’t see, saddening me with their departure yet giving me hope that they would venture somewhere beautiful. My dull heart suddenly ached after two days of nothingness, and in a strange way, it felt wonderful.
My father was the kindest, most honest man I had ever met. My sadness that came with his passing will never leave me. It’s like a delicate paper-thin child I keep hidden and protected in my coat pocket. A child I have to meticulously care for or the balance of my existence will be ruined. When my father died, I felt such a beautiful, sad, confusing heaviness. My soul and my life forever shifted in that period of time. I saw things differently. I saw people and everything around me differently. As terrible as the situation was, it was a blessing for me in terms of my work. I was finally able to externalize and visually portray my innermost feelings. Instead of shooting random photos that were weird for weird’s sake, I started telling stories. My photos can almost quite literally be read like a short story. Taking photos is like therapy for me. Everything I feel is put into something visual- not always literal and mostly symbolic, but there nonetheless. This is why I don’t care about critics, or the random people on the Internet who find solace in trashing me and my work. I don’t create images for anybody else but myself, but admittedly, it feels damn good when people “get it”- when people understand the place that my images come from. They come from a place of beauty, understanding, sadness, and sometimes pure confusion lumped with thousands of other emotions, mostly all stemming from my father’s death, like his soul shattered into a million pieces and fell onto my brain like fall leaves and all I have to do is pick them up and learn what to properly do with them. I loved my father so much, and I know that he would be so proud if he knew what his untimely death did to me. How it made me a better person, a better artist, a better viewer of the world. I suppose this is what people mean by “we never really die, we live on forever”- when people look at my work, they are unknowingly looking at my father’s life and death. They are looking at the product of someone slipping away and leaving the physical world forever, and how much of a wonderful ripple affect it has on this world, shattering into pieces and being seen in countless different facets.
All the images that appear in this post have been provided by Karen Jerzyk ©