In 2016, award-winning Minnesota-based photographer R. J. Kern 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 had then entered into a 4-H livestock competition. None of the youths who sat for him had succeeded in winning an award, despite the obvious care they had given to their animals. The Unchosen Ones depicts the bloom of youth and the mettle of the kids who grow up on farms, reminding us how resilient children can be when confronted with life’s inevitable disappointments. The formal qualities 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. Kern’s beautiful portraits capture a particular 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 his young subjects. The most recent photographs show how the children have grown into adolescence or young adulthood: some of them have continued to pursue animal husbandry, while others have developed other interests. It is likely that some of these kids will not choose to continue running their family farms—an unpredictable and demanding way to make a living. These diptychs are punctuated by lush landscapes of the farms that are their homes.
As Kern made the second group of photographs, he asked his young subjects what they had carried forward from their previous experience. What were their thoughts, their dreams, and their goals for the future? How would they fit into the future of agricultural America?