The Unchosen Ones – RJ Kern

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The Unchosen Ones is a new book by award-winning Minneapolis-based photographer R. J. Kern, The Unchosen Ones (MW Editions, November 2021) features portraits of future farmers in America’s heartland.

Kern’s subjects are Minnesota 4-H members, each of whom spent a year raising an animal then entered it into a 4-H competition. He first photographed them in 2016, and none of the children who sat for him succeeded in winning first prize, despite the obvious care they had given to their animals.

The formal qualities of Kern’s lighting and setting endow these young people with a gravitas beyond their years, revealing self-directed dedication in some, and in others, perhaps, the pressures of traditions imposed upon them. Four years later, in 2020, Kern returned to photograph and interview his young subjects.

As he took the second group of photographs, Kern inquired about what his young subjects had carried forward from their previous experience. What were their thoughts, their advice, their dreams and their goals for the future? How do they fit in future agricultural America? The new images are poignant when juxtaposed with the originals, tapping into the mindset of America’s agricultural youth. These beautiful portraits capture a certain America, a rural world, and a time in life when the layered emotions of youth are laid bare.

The Unchosen Ones stands as a document of these subjects, and of specific hot summer afternoons in Minnesota; I don’t doubt that a hundred years from now, viewers of these photographs will marvel at their truth and greedily consume every fact and detail. This is what documentary photography is intended to do, but the best examples of it—as this work is—transcend the specificity of time and place. Kern has preserved decisive moments in photography that are also universal human moments. Youth is fleeting. Disappointment is inevitable. Kids grow up. Love endures. We carry on.

Essay Excerpt by Alison Nordström

Here at Capture Integration, we loved the body of work so much, we needed our own copy.

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