Photographer Kenny Karpov has always been guided by his sense of empathy. It’s that ability to connect with his subjects — from immigrants in Southwest Detroit to local musicians in the scene — that allows him to capture incredibly intimate moments. The latest gallery show from the Detroit-based writer and documentarian showcases his most emotional work yet, through stories and photographs Karpov collected during four years abroad working with refugees on the Mediterranean Sea.
“Despite It All We Never Learn,” his first solo exhibition, will be on view from Nov. 22 to Dec. 14 at M Contemporary in Ferndale, with an opening reception on Nov. 22 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Detour caught up with the photojournalist for the inside story behind these vivid and unforgettable stories.
DETOUR: You were building a career here in Detroit as a documentary photographer before deciding to go halfway around the world, work for NGOs and tell the stories of refugees. Tell us what inspired you to go abroad and how you were able to partner with organizations to do this work.
Karpov: I spent some time working as a freelance photographer for a number of mainstream media outlets in DC and New York. The work was uninspiring. I personally felt unchallenged — and that the work was a complete disservice to the people I was sent to interview and photograph. Everything was always rushed and the editors didn’t care about the people involved in telling their story. So I found myself volunteering for various nonprofit organizations that aided refugees with resettlement, language learning, storytelling or simply lending an ear. I soon realized this was my calling and left America.
I was constantly moved by the refugee’s resilience and strength in the face of such hardship. Would I be so friendly, so kind, if it were me in their shoes? I wrote to a number of NGO’s that were conducting search and rescue operations in the Med Sea. A couple days later, I received an email from the Germany NGO, Sea Watch, to join them on a two-week mission. I was told to fly to the island of Malta. I took the next two days to sell everything I owned to help in a greater cause across the globe.
So, that’s essentially how I got into human activism.
What did you learn about migrants or refugees that you didn’t know before leaving Detroit?
I’ve seen a lot of refugee camps in magazines and papers over the years, but they were generally static pieces and places. What I’ve never seen is people moving en masse like what I witnessed — putting their lives on the line, risking everything for freedom, for safety. To see the fear on their faces, but also the relief that they’d finally made it, was completely overwhelming. I’d also say, the massive needs of the people who flee and that modern slavery still exists in so many parts of the world. And refugees are the vulnerable. They have lost everything — in a second, in a day.
How has this experience changed or sharpened your own style as a photographer?
I was looking for something not photojournalistic when I left America for the Mediterranean Sea, trying to be more brave and confronting in my photographic approach. I wanted to break the typical pattern on how photographers document conflicts and migration. Politicians and the media often try to simplify the narrative; but the fact is, if you have hundreds of thousands of people crossing into Europe, you have hundreds of thousands of stories.
So I wanted to collaborate with refugees to come up with a different visual narrative. I wanted alternative images to reach an alternative outcome with the audience. No repetition, like when everyone knows his or her photographic scope before even entering a crisis. I wanted to shake this up. I wanted to convey more empathy in my images; creating images about dignity, about inspiration, while being realistic and not ignoring the difficulty of their circumstances. I hope I managed to show both.
So, rather than try to photograph the whole crisis, I tried to cover a few stories within it and that was how I kept my focus during the four years. I also tried to spend less time thinking about the clever image, and more about how I connect with somebody. I have a lot more empathy with the people I photograph now, and that is reflected in the work. I’ve gone back to shooting on film for this journey and I wanted to create a document, a record of what happened, because this is unprecedented. Shooting on film meant this could be from any era.
Seeing these photos and reading the companion stories will be incredibly emotional for people visiting your gallery show. How can an ordinary person like me help or contribute?
A key part of my role as writer and photographer for the NGOs aboard the vessels is supporting the people we’re there aiding; telling the story of what is really happening in the Central Mediterranean and in Libya. The fact that people are drowning or being human trafficked is an abomination, but that so many people remain ignorant or ambivalent to the level of devastation at our borders is almost equally as catastrophic.
What refugees experienced in Libya and other parts of Africa and the Middle East, no one should have to experience, but people do every day and they cannot reach out to tell their story to the world. What ordinary people can do, is inform yourself as to the human loss of life in the Mediterranean Sea, and why they flee. Witness their stories. Share their voice to your family and friends. Once that flicker of acknowledgement from people around the world occurs, things can undoubtedly change.
Become a conscientious citizen in your own part of the world; if you see someone being treated unfairly because of their refugee status, stand up for them. Also look for opportunities to speak out and support the NGO’s and their work. Apply to join a mission or volunteer to teach English to those recent arrivals who might lack language skills. One of the most encouraging things I’ve seen in the past couple of years is the number of volunteers –people who had no background in humanitarian work — saying “I want to do something about this.”
Kenny Karpov’s photography exhibition, Despite It All We Never Learn, will be on view from Nov. 22 to Dec. 14 at M Contemporary in Ferndale, including an opening reception on Nov. 22, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.