New photo book highlights humanity of Minnesota's 4-H members
R.J. Kern's book The Unchosen Ones captures Minnesota 4-H students side-by-side, taken four years apart from each other.
For his latest project, Minneapolis-based photographer R.J. Kern turned his lens to Minnesota 4-H members and their animals — specifically those that did not win at their local fairs.
Kern has been featured in National Geographic, the BBC, PBS, PDN and the Royal Photographic Society Journal, and this is his third book dealing with the subject of agricultural animals. The Best of the Best examined the history of animal competitions, while The Sheep and the Goats called attention to the cultural landscapes surrounding domesticated animals.
For The Unchosen Ones, Kern's work started in 2016, when he took portraits of youth contestants at 10 different Minnesota county fairs. Each participant he shot had spent a year raising an animal that they entered into a 4-H livestock competition but didn't win an award at the fair.
He said he learned a lot about the 4-H community, and how 4-H kids show "hard work and resilience" through their work.
"They're smart, they're passionate and they understand their animals and what their goals are," said Kerns of 4-H members. "I think a lot of that comes from the community around them, and that it's cool to do this."
Kerns also learned how competitive 4-H can be.
"While many of them had been practicing for months leading up to this moment, they seemed to channel their nervous energy into their stoic faces, showing confidence and poise," writes Kern in the book. "Often, the animals would cooperate with them, holding firm with a strong posture."
After judges decided who the winners were, Kerns would approach the kids at the back of line who were not recognized, and ask if he could take their portraits with their animals.
"I feel like the unchosen ones are all of us — at one point in life, we're unchosen for something," said Kerns. "And how we respond and build back from that experience, I feel like ultimately is what defines us."
Kerns photographed 65 4-H students that year, and in 2020, after working on other projects, he revisited the same kids.
Kerns wrote in his grant proposal for the book that he'd attend all the same county fairs in 2020, so he faced a challenge when the pandemic cancelled fairs due to the pandemic.
"So I said, well, I'll just reach out to them — and most of them were very receptive," said Kerns, who said he was able to connect with 50 kids out of the original 65.
This time around, he asked students what they carried forward from the experience of not being recognized four years earlier, as well how they thought they fit in the future of agriculture in America. He was surprised by some of the student responses. One of them had been incarcerated, and another had given birth twice. Some had gone on to pursue other activities like sports, and one had earned a 4-H grand champion ribbon.
He captured all the students with a studio-style backdrop.
"I brought this studio style backdrop, which I feel like honors them in their journey," he said. "Studio lighting kind of draws on this painterly quality that I really loved, and I really wanted to capture the reality of the world that they live in, and all that hard work that's required to do what they do."