R.J. Kern:Rylee and Nelly, Clay County Fair, Minnesota, 2016
Rylee and Nelly, Clay County Fair, Minnesota, 2020
from The Unchosen Ones series
archival inkjet print
courtesy of the artist
“A Behind the Scenes Look Into How Photographer R. J. Kern Shot This Heartwarming Photo Series called "The Unchosen Ones," Eli Dreyfuss, Fstoppers
Interview with KAXE public radio
“R.J. Kern: The Unchosen Ones,” Aline Smithson, Lenscratch
While recent years have seen an increasing interest in contemporary photography’s engagement in the cultures and landscapes of rural America and Indian Country, R.J. Kern’s work stands out in this field for its extended documentation of one of the social pillars of these communities: 4-H, the largest youth development organization in the United States. Amongst a wide range of educational programs in rural, urban, and suburban America, 4-H is also the force behind the annual livestock presentations at county and state fairs.
Much of Kern’s recent work has found a home base in those fairgrounds and livestock halls, exploring ideas of home, ancestry, and sense of place through the interactions between humans and animals in these spaces. In his most recognized series, The Unchosen Ones, Kern set up his studio at Minnesota County Fair animal competitions – the qualifying step toward inclusion in the livestock presentations at the Minnesota State Fair, the largest state fair by daily attendance in the United States. Encompassing portraits from 10 of these county fairs, Kern turns his eye not to the greatest or most unique animals, but to the last place contestants.
“Everyone wants to be a winner, but just because you’re second place doesn’t mean you’re a loser,” Kern told the Fargo InForum. “Often, if you fast forward 20 or 30 years, those kids that didn’t get first place, they really had to work hard, they were the ones who went on to do something really big with their life. We all know what it’s like not to be chosen for something.”
Captured without pretense and elevated through striking color, light, and composition, the love shared between animal and child is evident as the dignity of both beings is restored despite the loss. As the 4-H participants face the camera for the first photograph in their session, Kern turns them toward the future with a question: “show me what next year’s grand champion looks like.”
Kern’s work has been presented in a number of exhibitions and publications, including a feature in National Geographic. While his photographs and artist books are held in the collections of museums nationally and internationally, Kern has also presented this work at numerous county fairs and public spaces through a traveling exhibition.
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