09 August 2016

Silent Witness

09 August 2016 - Written by PhMuseum

Piotr Karpinski's work poses existentialist questions about life and death.

© Piotr Karpinski. Woman in The Church No.1 

‘It’s insane, mental and absolutely genius to be able to record what your eyes can see.’ Those were the thoughts of an eight-year-old Piotr Karpinski, who, having just been given a Polaroid believed that taking pictures was like magic. Now 31, Karpinski recalls thinking that those Polaroid images felt like he was trapping time forever – ‘like taking a sample of the world around you and making a copy of it,’ he says.

‘I was always thinking about becoming a photographer, but I guess I really made the decision when I realised I would need to prepare a photography portfolio to allow me to get a place at university.’

Indeed, Karpinski, who has been living in the UK for the past 10 years, has recently completed a BA in photography at Middlesex University and is this year’s recipient of British Journal of Photography’s Breakthrough Graduate Single Image award for his image Woman in the Church No.1, which is part of a wider series titled, Let’s Talk About Life & Death Darling. His graduation project was also selected for The Catlin Guide 2015 New Artists in the UK, and included in Creative Review’s Photography Annual 2015.

© Piotr Karpinski. Death No 1 

Growing up in Poland was idyllic, says Karpinski, who moved to the UK in 2006. He recalls a childhood surrounded by wild forests and beautiful lakes. ‘It was exciting to be a child. Photography, however, was never a central feature at home, but merely a means with which his family captured moments, recording life as it unfolded, ‘or people and places that aren’t there any more’, he says.

During his 20's he experienced a dark period. ‘I got into the habit of thinking about death a lot, and that was very painful. Fortunately for me, that time has gone, but the experience has made me a different person – a better one, I believe. Thinking about death gives me positive energy now; it helps me to enjoy life.’

He believes this seminal period informs his work. ‘Life, death and time are my influences, but time is my biggest inspiration,’ he explains. ‘Observing its consequences fascinates me – including death and life. Sometimes I think they are equal and mean the same thing. I am usually dealing with my own concerns and fascinations related to those. Sometimes I wish to live forever. I often depict my own state of mind when creating a picture, even if it looks like a portrait of someone else. I am interested in memento mori as a theme in visual art; I think it is a big part of my work as well. I like codes and metaphors – photography allows me to operate with those using a visual language. I am fascinated with the notions of “never”, “forever” and “always”.’

© Piotr Karpinski. Man Exercising Between Graves 

In Karpinski’s portraiture, eyes become the central focus and arguably the most important aspect of the image. ‘I crop the eyes and blow them up – it’s one of the main elements I use to convey a message or communicate an idea. If you see my contact sheets, they sometimes look like one repetitive picture, and that’s because I’m always trying to find this fragile moment that I actually want to photograph. I like the eyes to play one of the main roles in my photographs,’ he explains.

‘I love taking a close look at eyes, and I love cutting them out of the final image. I like analyzing them – photography allows me to do that, especially in post production. It’s somewhere close to being voyeuristic, but without a sexual context.’

Award-winning photographer and filmmaker, Dean Chalkley, who was among the Breakthrough judges who chose Karpinski’s work, says his style thumbs its nose at the traditional rules of portraiture, and added that being forced into eye contact triggers a lot of emotion in the viewer.

And so, through Karpinski’s work, what the viewer might see is Karpinski.

• Piotr Karpinski’s work was recently on show at British Journal of Photography’s Breakthrough 2016 exhibition, as part of the Free Range summer graduate shows at The Old Truman Brewery in east London.

To learn more about this series, visit Piotr Karpinski's PHmuseum profile


Early Careers focuses on a series by a photographer from the Photographic Museum of Humanity’s online community.

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