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Karen Zusman highlights the beauty and passion of the youth

As 2021’s Women’s History Month nears its end, we continue to admire incredible contributions made by women. The work and creativity of Karen Zusman, winner of this year’s Leica Women Foto Project Award, is certainly no exception. 

The Leica Women Foto Project Award began honoring female photographers in 2019 by spotlighting & elevating their perspectives and impact on visual storytelling. Zusman is one of three 2021 winners of the prestigious award, sharing the recognition with Matika Wilbur and Anna Boyiazis.

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From The Super Power of Me series: “Kris, age 8, lives in Sheepshead Bay with his two brothers, mother, and stepfather.” (Cred: Karen Zusman).

Karen Zusman

Karen Zusman is a New York-based photographer whose work spotlights diversity, social justice, and the youth. Her background in poetry offers unparalleled inspiration both during image production and in constructing image descriptions. 

Zusman’s winning photographs at the Leica Women Foto Project highlight children’s reactions to the BLM protests this past year. We had the honor of interviewing her and learning about her creative process and intentions for the images in the Leica Women project.

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From The Super Power of Me series “Elena, age 9, lives in Harlem with her mother and grandmother.” (Cred: Karen Zusman).

An interview with Zusman, Leica Women Foto Project winner

Kulture Hub: Your work touches on children’s reactions to activism, an aspect so vital to social justice but often not center-focused. What were some notable themes or details you recognized in the reactions of children you showcased? 

Karen Zusman: I would say the notable details started with the children that inspired the series to begin with. It was the reactions of the children of color to our weekly BLM bicycle protest “Justice Rides.”

At the peak of our protesting we had nearly 15,000 cyclists snaking through these underserved neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx. So these kids were amazed, a line of bikes that took 15 minutes to pass, all chanting, “Black lives matter.”

I will never forget the one child, probably around 8 years old, who was so ecstatic, he joined in the chanting in such an enthusiastic way that our whole line of bicycles stopped so he could participate with us in the chant…. It was a remarkable thing to witness (and photograph). 

Other times, the children would just stop and fall to their knees, kneeling on the sidewalk, wide-eyed, unsure what to make of this recognition–trying to take in this chant that they understood on some level was for them. While I loved so much about these rides, it was truly the responses of the children that kept me involved for so long. 

The Leica Women Foto Project

KH: What motivated you to apply to the Leica Women Foto Project? What do you hope to accomplish with the award and platform that the contest has offered you? 

KZ: I first heard about the award in its inaugural year. I applied for it but obviously it took me this 2nd try to succeed. I think my project was a lot more defined this time around. And that’s a direct result of my involvement this past year with BLM. 

The social reckoning and reflection that has come out of the expansion of the movement since George Floyd’s death. And for me, to understand that systemic racism starts at birth. Therefore, the outcome of the protests and everything related to that reckoning stands to benefit these children that I’m trying to empower with this series. 

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Black Lives Matter protestors bike through the streets (Cred: Karen Zusman)

I’m hoping people will look at these super-powered kids rendered larger than life in an outdoor exhibit and be confronted with their visions of who these children are. It’s about showing the world their strength and grace before anyone tells them otherwise.

Karen Zusman

But most importantly, it’s about showing them, and all children who look like them, that they really are superheroes… I really believe these kids can do whatever they dream of doing. Once we as a society collectively tell them it is so.  

Additionally, with the added creative workshops I’m offering to them, we will work on their poem-captions so that they can be collaborators in the series. So that their voices are heard alongside their portraits. Because I’m not a person of color, this aspect of the project is essential I believe. Because the story of who they are truly belongs to them. 

Vision and intentionality in photography

KHDid you have a prior vision or intention for this piece? Did that vision mold during your creative execution? 

KZ: I had a loose vision that I wanted to photograph kids of color as a result of documenting their responses to BLM protest marches and rides… 

Early on, a father of some of the children whose picture I took, who was from Ghana, thanked me for giving his kids “the living proof that they were the superheroes that they imagined themselves to be.” 

Karen Zusman
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Kids ride in the back of a car through city streets (via Karen Zusman)

His words really struck me, and maybe it was in that moment, for the first time, that I really understood the value of what I was doing. The power a portrait has on a child to see their own strength. And with that, The Super Power of Me series was borne.  

And later, because the responses of all the parents and aunties was so favorable when I would share…what I had photographed, I began to realize the value of an exhibit–not just for me as the photographer–but also for them…

I offered a free creative workshop in Ft Green Park to the kids in my photos and to my delight almost every family showed up. That’s when I got the idea that I could bring in my MFA in poetry and help the kids write poems about who they imagine themselves to be, and we could work that into captions to accompany their portraits.

That’s when I really got excited. Because the missing piece for me was how to include them more in the process. How to integrate their vision of who they are–and show the world their take on that as well. 

Discovering a passion for photography

KHGrowing up, what inspired you about photography? And pursuing photography professionally, who are some photographers or artists who guide or influence you? 

KZ: I came to photography late in the game. I’m self-taught and my photography came from a direct need to document stories I was covering in Southeast Asia as a multimedia journalist.

I was in Burma as a Buddhist meditator [and] I had a desire to tell the story of what life was like [there] for ordinary citizens and from that I started uncovering human trafficking and forced labor stories. 

I was neither a photographer nor a journalist at the time, but I had an MFA in poetry–in other words, I could write–and so I jumped in with all I had. 

Karen Zusman

Following that, I co-founded a mobile education project to provide basic literacy skills to children who were compelled into forced servitude inside Burma. I bought myself a “real” camera so I could document our project….

The project attracted seasoned photojournalists who were passing through Yangon, and I received tips from them, and from friends back in NYC along the way. 

One of my closest friends is street photographer Richard Sandler, and I think I’ve picked up a lot in regards to photography from him… not to mention so many days and nights [I’d spent] pouring over his extensive home photography library. 

Subjects in photos

KHWhat are your favorite subjects to photograph and why? 

KZ: I love photographing people. I think it has to do with being a loner, and being quite introspective–as is the case for many writers and poets, not to mention meditators! But [when] I began documenting stories, and meeting more people … I realized how much I loved that interaction. 

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From The Super Power of Me series, Kris, age 8. (Cred: Karen Zusman)

Once I got a camera in my hands, that opened even more ways of connecting with people. And more ways to tell a story. It was intoxicating to me. 

Karen Zusman

I still travel a lot, almost always on my own. I’ve been to Cuba 21 times in 4 years and though at first I didn’t speak the language it was through the camera that I found my company. I connected immediately with those I was photographing. 

And then later, when I began to process the images, I saw so much in their eyes. Even more than what I had seen originally, which had moved me to take their picture. I always ended up wanting to know more. So I would return… And now I have a large body of work from there. 

And in a way, I can say the same thing about this Super Power of Me series, for which I received this award. I really care about these kids, I see so much in them. I can’t wait to do the workshops and learn more about who they are now and who they would like to be tomorrow. 

Perspective in the Leica Women Foto Project

KHWhat was your main reason for submitting the body of work that you did for the contest? What are some other notable works of yours that highlight your values and creative perspective? 

KZ: I submitted this project because I wanted the children of color and young immigrants that I photograph in the Super Power of Me project–and those that look like them–to see their strength now, before the world tells them otherwise. 

As a society dealing with a great social reckoning, there’s a lot of discourse–And I want us to not lose sight of who we are fighting for. 

Karen Zusman

[After] I began documenting stories of human trafficking and forced labor in Southeast Asia without having any journalism or photography training… I was incredibly gratified that PBS and NPR decided to feature [my work]. 

Two days after my story aired on PBS, five Malaysian immigration officials were arrested on human trafficking charges. To me, that was an incredible validation that the stories we choose to tell make a difference. 

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“Bubba and his nephew, William. Ages 9 and 3. Bubba lives in Brownsville with his mother, sister, and 3-year-old brother, Legacy.” (Cred: Karen Zusman).

I was awarded a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grant to continue that coverage. Shortly thereafter I co-founded a nonprofit free education program for child laborers. 

Working to document that population–to empower them rather than show their victimhood–was something I always strived for. I’m sure that experience helped lead me to who I am as a photographer today. 

Karen Zusman

Progress for women in photography

KHWhat is an example of progress you hope to see for women in the world of photography? Is there some notable progress you know of that women in photography have made that you are proud of? 

KZ: As with almost all areas, I feel women have not been given the same opportunity as men. In photography this is definitely the [case]. Although I think that is rapidly changing with awards like this one and others. 

My first image to be exhibited was with Gulnara Samoilova’s Women Street Photographers group (@womenstreetphotographers), which she has grown to quite an impressive collective with a large following. In fact, she just published a book to showcase the work of 100 female street photographers.

Recently, some of my work was exhibited in the ICP Museum and The Museum for the City of New York, and I believe they are taking steps to show more women, as well. 

Iris Photo Collective is a group of male photographers of color based in Miami and founded by photojournalist, Carl Juste. And in the last few years… they have worked hard to show and host female photographers, as well. 

The Leica Women‘s Foto Project award is my first major recognition in photography, and I’m super proud that it is for a project that was selected for its distinctively female point of view. And super proud as well, that it is from such an esteemed institution such as Leica, with an esteemed list of female jurors. 

Advice for aspiring photographers

KHDo you have any advice for upcoming photographers? Have you heard any words of wisdom that have particularly affected your take on photography and art in general? 

KZ: I make my living as a freelance advertising copywriter and so my advice stems from my own personal trajectory…

I always tell younger people, [regardless of the] type of artist they want to be that it’s not a bad idea to cultivate a skill set that may be outside or tangential to your art, in order to support yourself. 

Karen Zusman

Especially if it’s a skill that you can do as a freelancer. In this way, you can start your projects when you want, funding them yourself. Not waiting around to get the recognition or the reward. Let that come in time. 

But in the meantime, you can earn your living for several months of the year, and then take off and pursue the projects that really ignite you. That is what I did. I’m getting this recognition rather late in life–I’m in my fifties now. 

But I started documenting about 15 years ago, without the necessary professional degrees or titles, but solely because I felt compelled to. And as a freelancer, I could carve out the time and the means to do it and [learn] along the way. 

[While] there’s a ton of beautiful quotes I could list for inspiration [about] following one’s dream, I think the best advice is to simply stay curious–and be as open as one can possibly and safely be. Let the world touch you. It has so much to offer you, as do you have to offer it.