Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – semi-bald man wearing a turtleneck, standing in front of a room divider and looking seriously aat camera while standing t
All photos: Mikkel Hørlyck

My Friend, the Heroin Addict

Photographer Mikkel Hørlyck captured Jørgen Pedersen's last days.
Matéo Vigné
Brussels, BE

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.”

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – semi bold man wearing a tweed blazer and a shirt, smirking at the camera

Jørgen dressed to go to his high school reunion, which takes place every five years. While he never finished his studies, the clinic staff always called him “Mr. Smartypants”. Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

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.”

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – man wearing a hat, a jumper and long pants, prepping a syringe in a dimly lit room full of framed artworks propped up against the wall. The lamp projects a much larger shadow of him unto the wall

Pedersen prepping his fix at his flat filled with works of art. Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

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.”

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – photo album with picture of two men sitting on a couch in front of a coffee table with two large paintings behind them

Jørgen Pedersen (right) and his brother Ole (left) in a family album. Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – extremely skinny man wearing sunglasses, a cap and a medical harness around their torso, standing in front of a disheveled bed in a hospital room and looking away

Pedersen at the Skejby Hospital, summer 2016. He was treated for seven weeks for a staph infection, a heart valve inflammation, and gallstones. Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

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:

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – an embalmed bird hanging from a wired screwed into the wall

Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – man in a robe with roses on it, slumped forward on the couch. behind him, an older woman wearing an apron and speaking to him, looking worried, as well as a table set for two

Every time Pedersen visited his mother, he’d shave, wash and put on a flower robe. On this particular visit, he couldn’t stop falling asleep. Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – close up of a pedersen's wrinkly face. He was very very thin.

Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – close up of a man and woman hugging. Pedersen is missing his teeth, his face is emaciated

Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – pedersen hugging his mother from behind, as she is bent over a kitchen countertop, cutting a small bread

Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – Man and woman lying on a couch. Pedersen is hugging her from behind, the floor is quite messy.

Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – close-up frontal shot of a man with an emaciated face, looking wearily at camera.

Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – man lying in a hospital bed, holding a cup with some dark drink.

“I don’t want to die. It’s so unfair. All I can think of is my mother,” says Pedersen, crying. His greatest fear was going to sleep and never waking up. Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – man walking with a cane by the side of the road, wearing a robe, pants, a coat and carrying a plastic bag in his left arm

Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – man biking on the side walk, worryingly looking over his shoulder

Pedersen running late for his clinic appointment. If he didn’t show in time, he’d receive methadone instead of heroin, a drug commonly used as replacement which had harmful effects on his body. Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – man injecting himself in his wrist

Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – very thin man bent forward, talking on the phone with a cigarette in hand. He is standing outside in a garden

Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – man holding a sharp pointy object in his head and simultaneously grabbing the cheek of an elderly woman who's looking at him with worried eyes

Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – close up of Pedersen hugging a woman pictured from behind her shoulder

Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck

Mikkel Hørlyck, Jørgen, a Mystery – Pedersen lying on a hospital bed in a chapel

Pedersen resting in peace at the Skejby Hospital chapel. Photo: Mikkel Hørlyck