When the sisters discussed their childhood, Ruzicka realised she had no memory of her father ever being in the house.
“I asked Mum and then she told me everything,” she says. “About the marriage, kicking him out, fighting to keep the house, living in a women’s hostel.”
The most harrowing aspect was her mother’s revelation that her father had phoned shortly after shooting his defacto. “Mum had known something was terribly wrong, because he was barely lucid, but she didn’t know what he’d done,” Ruzicka says.
“Even with his history of violence, instability and alcohol abuse, she pleaded with him to come to our house. Whatever was wrong, she’d help out.”
Shortly afterwards, he killed himself.
“Thank God, he didn’t come come over. Who knows what might have happened.”
One seemingly inconsequential fact haunted Ruzicka.
“One of the detectives who had attended the murder scene found a new pair of my dad’s running shoes and sold them, giving the cash to my mum because he could see how difficult life had become.
“That kind of kindness had been a beautiful thing to do, though it was against the rules.”
The anecdote had extra resonance because Ruzicka’s husband, Ryan, had just joined the Victorian police and their life was being torn apart by shift work (they’re fine now).
Confronting images of their marriage crisis – including a self portrait of a tearful Ruzicka following a verbal fight – had won her the Sunstudios Emerging Photographer award last year.
With the prize entitling her to her first exhibition, she chose to explore the family trauma surrounding her father – “shedding shame of domestic violence and hopefully encouraging others to do the same”.
Despite its title, no running shoes appear in My Father’s Runners, which has opened at Sydney’s Sunstudios. There’s also only one image of Ruzicka’s father, unless you count the one of his legs and shoes on her parent’s wedding day.
“The exhibition deals with the impact of buried trauma on relationships and individuals,” Ruzicka says. “In an indirect way, it’s a tribute to my mum. How she coped and provided for two children, despite her own trauma, is amazing.”
The “raw and dark images” also reveal what Ruzicka says is the “fear of loss, of losing my mum”.
My Father’s Shoes is at SunStudios in Alexandria until August 12.
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