Normally, she’s the expert in asking original questions. This time round though, I caught up with Karina Rozwadowska, who is best known from her street photography and interviews during the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. I first came across her beautiful work in ZeitMagazin and have followed her Instagram account ever since. Karina was trained as an art historian in Berlin and now spends her days reflecting on feminism, women’s rights and politics. And what better way of doing that than talking to a diverse range of women on the streets of New York…? So, without further ado:
Karina, it’s so nice to talk to you. Can you explain your project “Documents On” in a sentence?
I stop women I find intriguing on the streets, take their portrait and follow up with an interview about their personal life experiences. That’s one sentence. If I had two more, I would add that it’s also about meeting strangers and getting them to open up about personal issues. It’s also about how one woman views the other: the female gaze, if you will.
Wanda, 21, Student and model
The women you portray and interview are all incredibly interesting and diverse. How can you tell whether a person makes for a good story?
As strange as it may sound, I just know. Weirdly enough, I can instantly tell if a person has a deeper personality with rough edges, ambiguities and insecurities and therefore has an intriguing story to tell. An interesting character always shows in the face. And I’m almost never wrong about that.
What is your interview routine? How do you approach people and how do you decide what direction the conversation is going?
Whenever I spot a potential “Documents On” girl on the streets I approach her and ask if she allows me to take her portrait. I show her my Instagram page and describe in a few words what my work is about. The typical New York City person usually has no time right on the spot, so we schedule a date for the interview and preferably a second portrait. By then, I pretty much know how open-minded or introverted the woman is and how far I can go.
There are some complicated life stories that need more time, so sometimes I meet certain girls more than once. I already started interviewing the girls I met two years ago after moving to New York City for a second round, asking the same questions and seeing how their lives have evolved, whether problems have been solved and how their answers have changed. That is actually the true goal of my project: to follow the girls I chose for a longer period in their life, maybe even for a lifetime, who knows? That would be my dream. Grow old with them, with their stories and faces.
Holly, 25, Dancer
Are there encounters that have made a lasting impression on you?
Quiet a few. I met girls that opened up to me about serious and hurtful experiences, like their own alcoholism, drug problems, sexual or emotional abuse by parents or boyfriends, about cutting themselves, or just the regular struggle of becoming the adult they want to be in competitive surroundings like L.A. or New York. Some things that come up in the conversations never end up in the interviews especially when the girls don’t feel comfortable having certain information published. With many of them, I have regular conversations on social media and we sort of follow each others life’s through that.
Hannah, 33, Translator
What does feminism mean to you?
Equal rights, equal opportunities in life and profession. Still not that simple to achieve.
How do you want your portraits to influence the way we discuss femininity today?
I want to show the woman in all her ambiguity – self-confident and insecure at the same time as well as lost in all the possibilities and desires, unable to commit or to stop looking, while still longing for acceptance in her closed social circle and beyond.
Tiana, 26, Stylist
US President Donald Trump was elected more than one year ago; you’ve talked to many people about their political views since. How has he changed the vibe in New York City?
It was a devastating morning waking up to a person like Trump being the leader of the so-called free world. A guy who was accused of sexual misconduct by so many women and who swiftly claimed all accusers were liars. By getting caught on tape bragging about assaulting women but not having been held accountable, he involuntarily added to the explosiveness of the topic. It made people so angry, and so things took the right turn when serial perpetrators were finally brought to justice, such as Kevin Spacey or Harvey Weinstein. It’s interesting that Trump still seems to be untouchable but my guess is that will change.
Sawnee, 22, Sales Assistant
One reaction to him taking office have been global Women’s Marches. You took some powerful portraits during the march in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. Observers have called the worldwide events the start of the largest global movement of political participation and, perhaps, organised anger, in the best possible way. How did you experience the event?
You know what? It was my first demonstration ever. The solidarity was electrifying: all kinds of women of different ages, backgrounds, religions, and ethnics marching together screaming out their anger, being united. However, marching alone will not do it. We have to claim back the institutions.
Is there something that unites all women you speak to?
Yes. It’s the desire to be left alone by every hater out there. Most of them just want to be able to lead their lives the way they want. But interestingly enough, it is getting increasingly complicated to do that.
Akuta, 20, Founder of fashion brand “Aama”
I’ve read a few interviews where you’ve asked women about their bodies and their sexualities in a very casual way which is incredibly refreshing to read. Do you feel that something is finally changing in the way we see and appreciate ourselves?
Definitely. I have the most complicated conversations with heterosexual women who are willing to acknowledge an ambiguity about their gender. They want to be taken seriously, do, say and wear whatever they want and behave the way they want to. At the same time, many of them still want to be deemed sexy by the other gender. They admit there are days where they simply dress up for a man. I guess we will always be somewhat dependent on how the other gender views us.
What celebrity would you like to bump into and portray on NYC’s streets and why?
I’m not really interested in celebrities, mostly because I search for honest answers about serious, personal, or sensitive topics. Typically, you won’t get that from celebrities. They usually turn down every personal question or tell you the clean and boring answers they prepared with their public relations person. I once met Tavi Gevinson at Washington Square Park. She allowed me to take her portrait. I messed up the light and was very unhappy with the picture. I saw her twice since but was too shy to ask her again.
Alexandria, 26, Model and student
And finally, is there one special question that you love to ask people?
How do you cope with the consequences of your own choices?
And what’s your personal answer to it?
Admit your mistake. Never hide your character flaws. Be open about your imperfections. Having no secrets gives you independence.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, Karina!
All photographs taken by Karina Rozwadowska.