On a wintry Sunday morning we met with Bristol-based fashion & portrait photographer Karolina Wiśniowska, who warmly welcomed us in her home, offered us a freshly brewed coffee and introduced us to her wonderful baby-girl Sophie and her partner Tom, a keen knife-maker and Star Wars devotee.
Taking inspiration from things happening in her immediate surroundings, Karolina developed a photographic style that explores soulfully and quietly people’s complex emotions and thoughts, a style that speaks the language of connection, closeness and friendship.
Watching Sophie and Tom playing, Karolina opened up about their day to day life, about how motherhood influences her creative self and why storytelling is an important feature in her photographic work. Bracing the biting wind, we finished our get-together with a walk around Clifton Suspension Bridge and Village, chatting about her favourite shooting locations and how she feels when she’s experiencing the great outdoors.
How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?
I’m a 26 years old photographer who, just over 4 years ago, decided to go crazy and leave Poland for the UK. I’m highly focused on fashion and portrait photography, but I do occasionally like to get lost taking photos while I’m traveling.
Things I appreciate: the steam from a hot cup of coffee, the smell of my daughter and flicking through a new magazine.
What I don’t like: holes in socks, ironing and people who breathe loudly.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
One boy in kindergarten promised my best friend and I that he would bring us some chocolates, white roses and globes filled with stones especially for us. We were over the moon. My friend even brought special “children’s make up”, so we could look nice for the occasion. He never showed up. On the next day he said he couldn’t come because he was watching his favourite bed time cartoon. Boys, eh?
Tell us about your journey into photography.
My family had this simple point and shoot camera. I was 15 and I started to take pictures of myself to boost my confidence as my self esteem used to be very low. This way I discovered it was definitely my thing and I knew I had to do something with it. I had a short time at photography school back in Poland, but I mostly taught myself. I didn't really try to make it my career until I moved to Bristol though, I always had an excuse why it wouldn’t be possible. Luckily, I came to my senses!
Do you remember the first photograph you took?
It was a very simple family photo taken with an analogue camera. I used a self timer. I wasn’t sure what I should do exactly and stress took over, I totally messed it up. Over exposed and bright orange on one half of the picture. Silly 12 year old me!
Who or what inspires you?
Life. You can find inspiration everywhere if you have your eyes and mind wide open. Just go outside, don’t lock yourself in one scheme. People stopped doing it, they think that Pinterest and Instagram will sort everything. Don’t get me wrong, I love those apps, but we need to start being ourselves and stop copying others. That’s why I try to get away from that and search for inspiration from things close to me.
A large part of your work is portraiture. What do you seek when taking a person’s portrait?
Connection. Feelings. Intelligence. Permission to let me get to know them. Involvement. Finding a new friend.
How important is storytelling in your photography?
Very! This is my main goal, I want to share my feelings through the stories and engage people. Photos without stories have no soul. You just flick through them and instantly forget what you just saw.
How do you go about posing or directing your subjects?
I want them to feel natural, nothing that feels wrong for them. In an ideal world I have time to go for a coffee and get to know, at least a little bit, the person I’m going to shoot. Usually, I tell them what my goal is and we need to find the same style. I want them to be authentic and comfortable and I really like it when they give something from themselves. That’s why I prefer to document, than actually direct them every 5 minutes.
What are some of your favourite shooting locations? What is it that draws you to them?
I have a couple of places that I love, mountains in Wales and some wild beaches near Bristol, but I am still relatively new to this city, so I’m finding new places all the time. I try to explore and shoot in different locations so I can bring a variety of emotions to my pictures. I think in the wilderness you get that space and beauty that gives you the feeling of freedom. It makes you beautifully confident and sometimes emotional. Plus, you know, it’s bloody photogenic!
What’s a must have in your gear bag?
Camera (laughs). I don’t use any special gear other than that. Although I do like my 50mm lens, which I use the most.
You are a photographer and also the mother of wonderful baby-girl Sophie. How does motherhood influence you creatively?
To be honest, it can bring me up or put me down. Motherhood definitely gave me a different look at women. I see them stronger and even more beautiful now. We’re seriously amazing! Sophie makes me work on myself. I know I’m capable of much more than I thought. She inspires me a lot, gives me a kick to do things I really love and tells me that sometimes I just need to get a grip. On the other hand, being constantly sleep deprived can kill a lot of your desire. There are days when I wonder what kind of photographer am I if I don’t want to even touch my camera.
What would be your dream collaboration?
I’m not sure, but it would definitely involve travelling.
Who do you admire in your industry and who do you follow for inspiration?
From old school: Peter Lindbergh, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber. Other than that: Sonia Szóstak, Tom Mitchell, Bart & Silvia Pogoda, Patrick Xiong, Magdalena Wosinska, Nirav Patel, Marta Bevacqua.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
Don’t overthink, just do it. Given by my boyfriend/business adviser.
What does Bristol offer you as a photographer?
This is such a creative city! I love it, there is this chilled out vibe going on. It's full of inspiring people who are just like me, so I know I'm not alone in this business and we can all do it together. I have this urge to create by just living here. Plus, there are a lot of nice locations for shooting.
What does a typical day look like for you?
No day is the same. I guess this is an advantage of being a freelancer and a mother. But I always start a day with a cup of hot water and lemon, a bowl of porridge and the companionship of my daughter. I think I’m addicted to this breakfast. Then sometimes we take it slowly, stay at home, play with Sophie, read her books and I decide to bake something. Sometimes I have a busy day away and my boyfriend Tom stays with Sophie, because luckily he works from home. There are days when we take a short break and go for a walk or coffee. Everyday I definitely try to find some time for a little bit of yoga, family meals and a few moments just with Tom.
What are some of your favourite places to hang out in Bristol?
Coffee shops! Clifton Village, Stokes Croft, Gloucester Road, St Nicholas Market with incredible food. All of those places are full of independent businesses. Come weekend and I often regret I can’t be in a few places at the same time. Also, Leigh Woods are great when you’re in a need for nature and a walk in the woods.
What about when you want to get away from the city?
There is still so much to explore. I have my favourite place which is Black Mountains in Wales. It’s a part of the Brecon Beacons and it is simply stunning. I feel so happy by just being there. Other than that, the coastline in Dorset and Cornwall. I think I just like to feel small when I’m experiencing nature.
What are your plans for the future? Do you have any upcoming projects?
I don’t think I have a definite answer for this question. My goal is to progress, meet more people in the industry, start working with fashion designers and travel because of it.
Can you recommend us:
A song: DJ Shadow ‒ Midnight In A Perfect World.
A book: The Witcher Saga, by Andrzej Sapkowski.
A film: Scent of a Woman, by Martin Brest.
Thank you, Karolina for the lovely insight into your creative and personal realm.