Interview: Photographer Karolina Jonderko on Harnessing Loss

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Brought up in the south of Poland in a small mining town called Rydułtowy, Karolina Jonderko is a Warsaw based photographer with an eye for some of life’s most fragile moments. Most of her long-term projects center on the aftermath of loss and the issues that people face when dealing with it. Her lengthy list of accomplishments include recognition by the Lumix Festival for Young Photojournalism, Grand Press Photo, Word Press Photo, Ideas Tap and Magnum Photos Awards, and the International Photography Awards among others. She is also a member of Napo Images Agency and holds a master’s in Photography from the Polish National Film, Television and Theater School in Lodz.

After discovering her project “Little Poland” – which shares the lives of a small Polish community in what was once a resettlement camp for displaced Polish WW2 veterans and their families, but has since evolved into a vibrant, and close knit community in the heart of Devon, England –  I knew I had to connect with her to find out more about what inspires her to create such moving and emotional series. She did not disappoint. 

How did you get into photography?

I’ve been taking pictures since I was a little girl. Back then, I used a small analog toy camera. When I was 18 my dad gave me his old Russian analog camera, a Zenit. Initially, all I really wanted was to capture moments with my best furry friend – our Siberian husky. She was my muse and my model. I soon discovered that my snaps could be better. So I signed up for a year-long photography course to learn how the camera works and more advanced techniques for taking good photos. Once I found out how the shutter, iso and lenses work, my journey of discovering more truly began. I decided to develop my skills further at Warsaw Film School, where I studied photography for 2 years. I didn’t want to stop there though, I knew there was still so much to learn. So, after graduating I submitted my portfolio to the university of my dreams: Polish National Film, Television and Theater School in Lodz. And to my total amazement, they accepted it! I got in! This was a major turning point for me. I studied there for 5 years before graduating with my master’s in photography. It was a profound experience and since then my life has never been the same.

How would you describe your photographic style?

If I was asked to describe my photography style in one word, I would say simplicity. Clean corners, colourful, yet very simple frames. When I studied at the film school, I tried various techniques, styles and types of photography. Once I’d discovered documentary photography and the power of combining word and picture together, I decided it was for me. And here I am. 

Who or what would you describe as your biggest inspiration?

My experiences are my biggest inspiration. All of my personal projects are based on them. Of course I wouldn’t be where I’m now if not for all the schools I graduated from and all of the amazing photographers I met – but that’s more about technique. The ideas however, come directly from what I’ve lived through.

You call yourself “a proud coal miner’s daughter,” how has your background and upbringing influenced your work?

My background has a huge influence on my work. Rydułtowy is a small town where almost everyone knows each other. My father’s profession had an important impact too. As a family of a coal miner you constantly live in fear that one day your dad might not come back from work. When the whole house is shaking because of collapsing underground walls, it’s impossible not to think about all the people working down there. Especially your loved ones. A lot of my friends from primary school and high school also worked in the mine. There weren’t that many more careers to choose from back then.

 

It seems most of your projects are related to loss, can you expand on why that is and what you want people to take away from your art?

In 2008 my mum lost her two-year battle with cancer. Between her death and 2011, six more of my relatives passed away. My beloved husky joined them too. They were all very close to me. I was in a very dark place back then. Thankfully, I was diagnosed with clinical depression early enough and received help just in time. I managed to recover not only thanks to long-term therapy but also thanks to my photography. 

In 2012, I went to my granny’s house where my mother’s clothes were kept. The house was not heated since my granny had died. It was extremely cold. I reached for my mum’s coat and once I put it on, I felt calm for the first time in so many years. It’s really hard for me to even describe that sensation. I remember finding her blond hair on the coat before I looked at her wardrobe and decided to put on every piece and….take pictures. It was a spur-of-the-moment idea. I remembered how she used to put the clothes together creating sets that she would wear on different occasions. My sister helped me memorise those moments and in doing so, brought back the healthy and happy mum for me. 

At first I didn’t want to show these pictures to anyone but my sister. I thought that no one would understand. After all it was my loss, my trauma, my therapy. After a while I told the story to my dear friend from the film school. He was very moved by it and persuaded me to show it to our professor. So I did, and this is how the series became the topic of my bachelor degree thesis. It wound up with an exhibition and an article in a very well known Polish magazine „Wysokie Obcasy” (High Hills). This publication changed everything. So many people found this project inspiring, helpful and touching. I was snowed in with emails and messages from readers across Poland. It didn’t even cross my mind that those 10 simple pictures and my story would be so meaningful to others. Thanks to them I found the power of photography again. Since that moment all of my projects have been connected to loss in its many different forms. 

Ultimately, I want to find out how other people deal with loss and trauma. I found my way but I am really curious how other people do it. Apart from that, I put a strong emphasis on the informative half of my projects. I don’t want them to just be pretty pictures. I want them to be useful and have a lasting impact on others. I want observers to feel, to learn and to empathise with the people and their stories that I capture. 

I discovered you thanks to your Little Poland series shared on @calvertjournal’s instagram, can you tell me more about the series and what you aim to share with it?

Spring 1940, Niewiadom, Silesia, Poland. Someone was banging on the door of a modest family house. A woman carefully opened the door. She saw two German soldiers. They came to enlist her son, Stanislaw, into the Wehrmacht. He was only 16 years old. She refused, so was given an ultimatum: either her son joined or the whole family would be t transported to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Stanislaw embraced his mother, hugged his younger sister Jolanta, and agreed to go with the Germans. 

Stanislaw’s younger sister was my grandmother. She searched for her brother throughout the war. Finally, in 1950, she received information from the Polish Red Cross that her brother was alive and lived in Great Britain. He could not return to his country because he would have faced imprisonment or, even worse, execution. Therefore he settled in the UK permanently.

In 2009, my sister Hanna and I decided to do whatever we possibly could to reunite the siblings after 70 years of separation. We located our great uncle who lived with his two sons near Preston. On Christmas Day, we boarded my grandmother on her first ever flight and off we went. It was an extraordinary meeting, I can’t tell you how emotional we all were when we met. After all, the last time they saw each other, they were just children and now they’re both over 80 years old. During that unforgettable afternoon my uncle told his entire war story with even his sons hearing it in full for the first time.

Before his passing in 2010, Stan was finally able to see his parents’ graves and visit my grandmother a few more times in what were his last and only visits to his hometown. Sadly, my grandmother was close behind and passed away shortly after. My uncle’s story was never written down, it died with him. Today it’s only us and his sons who know it.

In 2015, my sister’s friend told us about an unusual place in Devon where she had volunteered. She told us about remarkable Polish war veterans, all with stories similar to my uncle’s. I thought then that perhaps not all was lost, perhaps the war stories can still be told and saved for us and the future generations. And that was how I ended up in Ilford Park Polish Home, known locally as Little Poland.

In early 2016, I moved to the UK to work on a project about “Little Poland”. Day after day, I spent time in the company of extraordinary people – true war heroes. I accompanied them in their daily activities from morning to night. I met airmen, Warsaw insurgents, orphans brought up by a maharaja in India, Siberian exiles, tank drivers. Many of whom had reconnected many years later in Ilford Park. I wanted to keep them and their stories from being forgotten.

What is your favorite series that you’ve created so far?

“Self-portrait with my mother” was the one which opened and set my mind for the next projects. But to be honest with you I don’t have a favorite one. All of them are equally important to me. All of them are telling different stories but have one thing in common. Loss.

And more importantly, what’s next on the agenda for you? Do you have another series in the works?

Since 2015 I’ve worked on the “Reborn” project. It’s a story about dolls that look, smell, and weigh exactly like real newborns. I first saw a reborn doll in a BBC documentary “My fake baby” and I immediately knew what a powerful therapy tool it must be. Recently this project was awarded at World Press Photo which opened up a whole new chapter for this series. I plan to add to it and share even more incredible stories, but I’m also being patient until the pandemic is over. There are a few other ideas floating around in my head, but too soon to share with a wider audience so stay tuned! 

You can keep up with Karolina on her Instagram page and explore her various other series’ such as “Lost” and “Just Like Us” on her website.

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