Detroit photographer exhibits emotional photos, stories of refugees

Stephanie Sokol for The Oakland Press

Looking through his lens, photographer Kenny Karpov tries to capture who people truly are — their expressions, their bodies and the light in their eyes. His emotional portraits, paired with written work, tell their stories.

In Karpov’s latest project, the book “Despite It All We Never Learn,” he tells the stories of refugees, the real people going through travails on a journey toward better and safer lives.

The book will be presented at his exhibition of the same name, opening Nov. 22 at M Contemporary Art gallery in Ferndale.

The personal narratives and images were captured during more than four years on the Mediterranean Sea. Karpov volunteered on boats, documenting and helping rescue refugees in small boats escaping war-torn countries such as Libya and Syria.

Karpov’s goal is to give people a look into the lives and thoughts of refugees — to show that they are not so different from us.

“The most dramatic moments of the refugee crisis are always going to appear in the news, but storytelling is a way to share their stories,” says Karpov, a Detroit native.

Karpov moved to New York City in his 20s, replacing his art materials with a camera, and started photographing the ways people lived in underground subcultures, a world completely outside his own.

He worked with large media outlets and continued taking photos, but knew he wanted to tell stories his own way. That expression started taking shape when he began this long-term project, taking photos and getting to know the refugees along the way. He spent time in Syria and Beirut, Lebanon, in 2014, an experience that “completely changed me,” Karpov says.

“I loved working with families and individuals,” he says. “Being around crisis and conflict, working in those kinds of zones, I felt really at home. I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life. I have this heightened awareness, so I wanted to witness it firsthand. Rather than just being a photographer, it was more me as a humanitarian wanting to take these firsthand events to my friends, the media, so they can see themselves in something and understand what this person’s coming from.”

“It’s so crucial,” Karpov says, to understand the reasons these people are willing to leave their homes and take an arduous journey to a strange land.

Refugees in boat
Refugees jammed onto an inflatable boat float in the Mediterranean Sea, hoping to reach a better life in a new country. (Photo by Kenny Karpov/

Many of the refugees traveled to help their families, going in search of jobs so they could send money back home. Or they were seeking safety from daily violence and war. But often they did not realize how long the journey was, and Karpov says some were told by their leaders that the trip would be much shorter.

He hopes this project makes it easier for the American public to understand the plight of refugees overseas.

“That’s the part that we overlook so much in the media,” he says. “We don’t sit with them and get their story. That shapes their narrative so strongly, so then people can find out why they’re fleeing so we can relate to that.”

He notes the exhibition shows individual refugees’ entire journeys. “I wanted to capture that perfectly with the images and that’s why it took so long for us to narrow it down.” It was Melannie Chard, owner of M Contemporary, who encouraged him to turn the photos and stories into an exhibition. Karpov sent her thousands of photos, which she cut from 1,000 to 50. “Every image needed to be different and convey a different element, what I photographed and what people need to see and understand,” he says.

“Everyone has a very traumatic story to tell. And being over there, that became what I wanted to get across from my narrative and this exhibit,” Karpov says. “That’s what these photographs and journeys encompass — people’s stories and photographs that you can’t look away from.”

The exhibition of “Despite It All We Never Learn” runs Nov. 22- Dec. 14 at M Contemporary Art, 205 E. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale. Artist reception is 6-9 p.m. Nov. 22. Visit

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