This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.Danish photographer Mikkel Hørlyck met Jørgen Pedersen by chance at Aarhus harbour in Denmark. Pedersen saw the city as his, while Hørlyck was just studying there, searching for a subject to shoot for a school project. “He said to me in a very strong and vibrant accent, ‘You have a 35mm and a 50mm lens. Back in the day, we would’ve called you a press photographer, but today, you’d say photojournalist, right?’” says Hørlyck. “I was impressed right away. He looked me straight in the eyes and it was like love at first sight.”
Hørlyck invited Pedersen over to his place to listen to rock music and chat. The two quickly bonded, and Hørlyck ended up taking pictures of him well after the end of his initial school project. “We saw each other quite frequently over the following six years,” Hørlyck says. “He was so intelligent, so funny, so profoundly interested in the world around him.”
Pedersen struggled with heroin addiction for 40 years. In the 80s, he and his brother Ole also sold the drug, sourcing and transporting from the Netherlands. Despite his heavy drug use and history of physical illness, he was able to survive on his body partly thanks to Denmark’s healthcare system, which provides several services to people with addiction.In 2012, the country introduced five drug consumption rooms, specialised clinics where people can receive injections safely and under medical supervision. A 2016 evaluation of the programme found that patients were “predominantly satisfied with the facilities” and “experienced a sense of social acceptance while inside”.Pedersen was a patient of one of these clinics. Everyday, the nurses gave him two doses of heroin and helped him resolve day-to-day problems. “He had his own flat and received financial aid every time he got sick,” Hørlyck says. “The goal in all of this was to give Jørgen and the others the chance to free themselves from the drugs.”
Unfortunately, Pedersen’s addiction was pretty severe. On top of his two doses, he’d inject himself five to ten more times a day. Eventually, Pedersen died in September 2021 of complications from liver cancer. He was determined to outlive his mother, who’d already lost her other son Ole to addiction. But, sadly, she passed away six weeks after his death.“It was an intense process, but also beautiful to watch because our bond was so strong,” says Hørlyck. “Just like the bond he had with his mother and his friend Birgitte, who he kept in touch with for 36 years.”In many ways, Pedersen should’ve died a long time before he actually did. “He cheated death many times,” says Hørlyck, remembering his friend’s intelligence and adaptability. “But he didn’t do it alone. The doctors, nurses and various aides were a huge help to him over the years – they saved him, over and over again.”
Photographing the life of someone addicted to heroin comes with its own set of challenges, which Hørlyck tried to navigate intuitively. “His addiction was very strong and his personality so sweet,” Hørlyck continues. “If my plan was to follow Jørgen for two days, I’d ask him for four.”After his death, Hørlyck compiled the photos he’d taken over the years in Jørgen, a Mystery (2016-2021), a photo series exploring all the questions Hørlyck could never ask. Who was Pedersen, really? Why did he never manage to recover? How did he cling onto life so dearly while simultaneously destroying himself?
“He was like a drug scientist, the Freud of getting high, Satan’s favourite child,” Hørlyck says. “A sophisticated spirit, a holy man, an extrovert and all-around colourful character.” Many different Danish publications ended up publishing Hørlyck’s work, and with each piece, new parts of Pedersen’s life came into focus for Hørlyck – keeping his friend’s story alive well beyond his departure.“I loved photographing him from our first meeting to our last,” Hørlyck says.Scroll down to see more pictures: