R. J. Kern

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

In 2016, I made portraits of youth contestants at Minnesota county fairs. Each participant—some as young as four years old— had spent a year raising an animal, which they entered into a 4-H livestock competition. None of the youths I photographed succeeded in winning an award, despite the obvious care they had given to their animals.

Four years later, in 2020, I returned to photograph the young people, asking them what they carried forward from their previous experience. Some of them have continued to pursue animal husbandry while others developed other interests. It is likely some of these kids will not choose to continue running their family farms—an unpredictable and demanding way of making a living.

As I created the second group of photographs, I asked them what were their thoughts, their dreams, and their goals for the future? How would they fit into the future of agricultural America?

The Unchosen Ones depicts the bloom of youth and the mettle of the young people who grow up on farms, reminding us how resilient children can be when confronted with life’s inevitable disappointments. The formal quality of the 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. The portraits capture a particular America, a rural pastoral world, and a time in life when the layered emotions of youth are laid bare.

Kaden, Mahnomen County, Minnesota, 2020

Emma, Bob, and Chicken, Hubbard County, Minnesota, 2020

Hannah and Howard, Freeborn County, Minnesota, 2020

Jameson and Sophia, Isanti County, Minnesota, 2020

David, Sheep, and Grandpa, Blue Earth County, Minnesota, 2020

Eric and R. J., West Otter Tail County, Minnesota, 2020

Cody and Rage, Blue Earth County, Minnesota, 2020

Ava and Smooth, West Otter Tail County, Minnesota, 2020

Carlana and Donkey, West Otter Tail County, Minnesota, 2020

Josilin and Tantor, West Otter Tail County, Minnesota, 2021

Kaden, Mahnomen County, Minnesota, 2020

Emma, Bob, and Chicken, Hubbard County, Minnesota, 2020

Hannah and Howard, Freeborn County, Minnesota, 2020

Jameson and Sophia, Isanti County, Minnesota, 2020

David, Sheep, and Grandpa, Blue Earth County, Minnesota, 2020

Eric and R. J., West Otter Tail County, Minnesota, 2020

Cody and Rage, Blue Earth County, Minnesota, 2020

Ava and Smooth, West Otter Tail County, Minnesota, 2020

Carlana and Donkey, West Otter Tail County, Minnesota, 2020

Josilin and Tantor, West Otter Tail County, Minnesota, 2021