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A new book by award-winning Minneapolis-based photographer R.J. Kern (born 1978), The Unchosen Ones features portraits of future farmers in America’s heartland. Kern’s subjects are Minnesota 4-H members posing with their farm animals. Each one spent a year raising an animal, which they then entered into a 4-H competition. Kern first photographed them in 2016, and none of the children who sat for him succeeded in winning an award, 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.
These beautiful portraits capture a certain America, a rural world and a time in life when the layered emotions of youth are laid bare. Four years later, in 2020, Kern returned to photograph and interview his young subjects. The new images are poignant when juxtaposed with the originals, tapping into the mindset of America’s agricultural youth. The diptychs of the children are punctuated by lush landscapes of the farms where these children have grown up.
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?