Words to pictures: Karen Zusman

Karen Zusman is a poet but she has now discovered the power of photography and is now making pictures with words. She used photography as a powerful communication tool that connects communities through her ‘Superpower of me’ project.

Words can be powerful but a photograph can speak a thousand words. So what can a writer with a camera tell us about the world we live in? Does the camera add an extra dimension to the message?

It was as recently as 2012 that Karen got her first “real” camera. A trip to Myanmar, documenting stories of human trafficking of Burmese refugees in South East Asia, with the non-profit organisation she co-founded to bring free education to child labourers brought the realisation of the power of photography. She was shooting with a cheap point-and-shoot while she was there. Then she met a “wonderful” photojournalist in Yangon, Afghani-Swiss Zalmai Ahad. He gave her an impromptu portfolio review and advised her, based on how she was shooting (rather than on what she was shooting), to upgrade to something she could really control artistically. The Fujifilm mirrorless X-T1 had just come out so she bought it.

The project that kicked off photography properly for her was based in Cuba, and she visited 21 times over a four-year period. She began thinking about visual poetry and using photography as an adjunct to her work. Her photos of Cuba picked up a few awards and this started Karen thinking about what elements make an image poetic. “Cuba felt mysterious and magical to me after my previous adventures.”

In photographic career terms, she’s been behind the camera for about a decade, but her work is now getting noticed. When asked how she would describe and assess her own photography, Karen says “It’s intimate, tells a story and, when I’m at my best, it’s lyrical as well”. All important requisites for a visual storyteller.

Once Karen realised photography was going to be an important tool for communicating the stories she wanted to tell, she set about acquiring the necessary skills. Many chats with photojournalists passing through Yangoon together with advice from her long-term friend, street photographer Richard Sandler, sent her in the right direction. Some evening courses at the International Centre for Photography cemented her on this new path.

Since then there have been a number of other influences on her photography. Initially it was Ernesto Bazan’s first book on Cuba which compelled Karen to photograph there and it changed the way she shoots. The work of Gordon Parks, Roy Decarava, Helen Levitt have also been strong influences on her photography.

After receiving The Leica Women’s Photo Project award in 2021, Karen is now getting international exposure and her images are gaining recognition.

The award recognised her ‘The Super Power of Me’ project and it has evolved as a series that includes poetry and creative writing by the children she photographs. She didn’t just want to make pictures of them. She wanted to collaborate with them, to give them a platform to tell us who they are. The portraits and prose poems were first exhibited side-by-side on six-foot panels in a public park; the poems are printed as large as the portraits and in the children’s own handwriting. 

The project is ongoing and the response to her work has been fantastic, both within the communities the children come from and from a wider audience. Its origins came in a slightly obscure way. While riding with a Black Lives Matter weekly bicycle protest group, she became curious about the children on sidelines for whom protests will matter most. 

She began photographing them at the beach and knew she had struck a chord when the first father she sent the images to wrote her back: “Thank you for giving my children the proof that they really are the super-powers that they imagine themselves to be”. His words inspired a series of portraits of the children at the beach – the ones they were protesting for – to show their power and their grace, to them, to their families, to the world. 

Her Black Lives Matter images came before The Super Power of Me, whilst riding with a weekly bicycle protest group of about 10,000 cyclists, at its peak, through all the boroughs of New York City. The protest group’s goal was to disrupt, to shut down bridges, streets and highways with the sheer number of cyclists riding together. While participating and protesting, the children for whom the outcome from this time of racial reckoning will matter most came into focus, and she started questioning what the protests were actually going to do for them. It was shot manually while on the bike – not an easy thing to do!

It’s somewhat daunting to go from poet to the type of cause-driven photography on the streets which Karen is now doing. “Photography has changed me. It makes me think about people’s stories more, makes me see the world around me differently. Importantly it helps me recognise the beauty that’s present always. Even in harsh circumstances, there is always the light, there is always something of what it means to be human. I want to celebrate that, no matter the circumstance.” 

The award in 2021 gave her confidence, not to think that her photography was great, but that it was heading in the right direction and communicating with a larger audience. When asked what advice she would give to other photographers on the value of entering awards as part of a career path in photography, her response was typically enthusiastic – “Just do it!!!”

Karen Zusman is a warm, intelligent, sensitive, enthusiastic woman who thinks about life and the people in it. Photography needs people like this, and increasingly so in a world where we are so engrossed in our own problems, so bombarded with transient information and ill-informed comment. For her, powerful photography has become an important communication tool.

“Even though I started out as a poet and writer, I think an image is more powerful, and the two together can be the most powerful of all. 

“When I made my human trafficking story, it was all audio recordings. PBS would not broadcast without imagery. I contacted an NGO in Kuala Lumpur that I knew had visual evidence of my reporting. We used that and two days after it aired, five Malaysian officials were arrested and charged with human trafficking.”

I learned a powerful lesson: to be an effective storyteller, I needed to be a photographer as well.”

From this she has advice for anyone who is considering a career in photography or even intending to use it as part of a mixed media approach. “Go for it. Take some classes to have a basic understanding of cameras, composition and importantly light, then go out and keep shooting, but also write about what you shot: What was the story? What is the emotion? How did you feel when you took it etc? Try to connect the image with your own emotions first…let it tell you something you didn’t know beforehand. start with yourself…

Wise words, based on experience, plus a mind and spirit which is connected to the world around her. What she has learned make us all excited to see what she photographs next. As she looks to the future, first she hopes to continue with and complete the Super Power of Me project. The initial project has seeded an idea and is evolving. She wants to engage it with children from different cultures in different parts of her own country and the world. The first stop is Zanzibar and she’s now shooting there. There she’s working with a few schools and is super-excited to photograph these children and students, to discover what they want to say about their images and themselves, their life, hopes and dreams. 

“I think using text and asking them to express themselves does more than simply taking their picture. We need to involve them more. We need to ‘give’ an experience in addition to ‘taking’ their picture.”

Karen Zusman’s exhibition at Xposure 2023

Karen Zusman may not be a name which many of you have heard of, but that should be caveated by the word ‘Yet’. She has definitely arrived in the world of photography and in a very short space of time too. She should be an inspiration to anyone who wants a career as a photographer; an example of how an engagement with the world around and an intelligent, insightful mind connect the creative and technical sides of photography.  

To find out more about Karen and her work visit her two websites (kz-photo.com and superpowerofme.org) and instagram accounts (@kzusman and @superpowerofmeproject).


By Chris Coe

Chris is a professional photographer, and the founder of Travel Photographer of the Year. He has been working as a professional photographer since 1992, shooting both editorial and advertising photography, and has published over 50 books. He lectures on and teaches photography, mentors and is a competition judge.