My name is Karen Zusman, but I happily answer to KZ. I came to photography about 10 years ago when I was recording an audio story about a group of Burmese refugees who were being sold to human traffickers by Malaysian state officials. I was in the region as a Buddhist meditator and when I learned what was happening, I based myself in Kuala Lumpur in order to make this story. Though I wasn’t a photographer at the time (nor a journalist!) I jumped in with all I had. It was then that I realized I needed to learn how to use a “real” camera. I found myself on fishing boats manned by forced laborers, interviewing stateless children, and in all kinds of scenarios where I wished I had photographed–but also understood that exposing identities would have been dangerous for these people. Shortly thereafter, I co-founded a free mobile education project for child laborers in Burma and that’s when I began to take pictures in earnest. But it wasn’t until I started traveling extensively to Cuba that my photography came of age, so to speak. I should mention that I have a very useful and lucrative (wink) Masters of Fine Art degree in poetry, which hopefully informs my photographic vision. I make my living as a freelance advertising copywriter based in NYC.
Since I began my self-study in photography, I frequently heard the comment about images being poetic. As a poet, this resonated for me; but I didn’t really know what that meant. But now I use the phrase to litmus test my images. There are many types of literary poems: formal, free verse, narrative, even experimental. And so for me, I select my images based on how well they fulfill the criteria of traditional poetry. Is there a lyricism? A meaningful economy to the elements–meaning everything in the frame serves a purpose? And finally, and very importantly, is there formal rigor in terms of composition? And as in my written poetry, in my photography I also try to somehow include some surreal or dreamlike quality in the frame. Just like a poem, a good image says something that while I know it when I see it, I’m hard-pressed to name. Emotion and tension and maybe wistfulness, too. But I try for an elegance, hopefully, where the elements in the photograph enjoy some sort of mysterious intimacy with the other elements. Where we’re drawn into an interior landscape just as we look upon an exterior one. Where the relationships in the image make you stop and want to try and figure it out. That’s an especially tall order for candid, street photography. But when it does come together, just like a great improvisational jazz score, there’s nothing like it.
I started shooting in Burma, and following that for years I only shot in Cuba. That’s where my largest body of work has been located. And it’s in Cuba that I started to find and establish my visual voice, such as it is. I’ve gone there 21 times in 4 years, sometimes for months at a time. Only recently I began shooting in my home base of Brooklyn, NYC. Then in the last few months, the pandemic happened, followed by the protests, and it was something I just couldn’t keep myself from. The moment seemed too important–to document, and to show that beauty continued to manifest in this still magical yet beleaguered city. Also, I’m an avid city cyclist. And nearly everyday since late March, I’m on my bike with 2 cameras. I love the mobility it gives me. With a pace and rhythm that lets me reflect upon whatever I just shot. I listen to Brubeck’s Calcutta Blues, Miles’ Sketches of Spain, Ahmad Jamal’s Marseille, or Michel Camilo’s Oblivion in my headphones while I ponder what I see. I get lost in the music, dream a little. Then I brake, lean the bike up against a wall, and start pressing the shutter on something else.
My job as a freelance ad creative is both a blessing and a curse. I’m blessed with being able to work hard and earn a good wage for several months at a time, and then cut myself loose and pursue my personal photo projects in between gigs. But the hours are long and the work is demanding. I continued to work the first 6 weeks of the pandemic. Often 12-15 hour days, but I would sometimes have a break of 3 hours while I awaited client feedback. I used that time very wisely–jumping on the bike and heading out to shoot. That tiny window of time forced me to be out with the camera–because the moment was too precious to not be, and those few hours were all I had.
I’m a seeker. I always have been. I have been halfway around the world multiple times to spend extended periods of silent meditation in Buddhist monasteries throughout Southeast Asia. But somehow in the last several years, photography fulfills that seeker’s longing in a way that I never could have imagined before I took to the streets, camera in hand. Sometimes, I feel like a ghost among the living. As if I’m invisible but can see all the beauty in everyone else. It takes me out of myself, and my frame of reference. I follow it as I’d follow a calling. To capture it. To distill it and serve it back up to the world. Not as an answer but as a question.