A Behind the Scenes Look Into How Photographer R. J. Kern Shot This Heartwarming Photo Series called "The Unchosen Ones"

A Behind the Scenes Look Into How Photographer R. J. Kern  Shot This Heartwarming Photo Series called "The Unchosen Ones"

In last week’s article, I introduced you to the inspiring work of Minnesota-based fine art photographer, R. J. Kern. This week, I connected with him again and was able to gain insight into what it took to create his most recent project, "The Unchosen Ones". If you were inspired by his work last week, I can assure you you'll be blown away by this one, too.

Before I dive into his thought process and work, I'll make a brief introduction. Kern is an established fine art photographer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota whose work juxtaposes humans and nature to showcase their unique relationship. One of the first things he told me regarding why he creates his work is that:

The exploration of my ancestry and cultural heritage through photography has created a thread of connectivity from past to present—a thread that is weaving a foundation for me as I begin my family and create a home for them. My camera—fueled by my passion for geography—helps me to interpret and order the world in large-scale detail, connecting one thing to another. "

As photographers, before starting any sort of passion project, it is important that we establish our voice and find out what makes our buttons tick. If we don't have a clear vision of what we want our work to communicate, it is easy to get lost in the crowd and miss a crucial connection with an audience.

The Message Behind the Series

The thing that initially drew me to this project was the message behind it. The main theme that is explored through this work is: one isn’t born a winner or loser, but a chooser. Kern explains that "as we look at them, they look back, allowing us to think about how we choose winners and the repercussions for the ones not chosen." he continues to add that "the photographs showcase the subject facing the camera, allowing the viewer to decide what connects and distinguishes these subjects. This idea really resonated with me and did with the wide audience this project has touched over its two-year life span so far.

How the Project Developed

As most big projects go, there is an abundant amount of planning and thought that goes into it- and most of the time, they evolve into something beautiful. In the case of this series, it developed in three phases. The first phase Kern explains that "It began with travels to Ireland, Germany, Norway, and Iceland, where I was seeking connections with my family heritage. I came to realize that my people and their lands have been intimately tied to goats, sheep, and rams—in Linnaean terms, the bovidae." Inspired by the habits of these animals, and their relationship with humans, he became interested in exploring the standards humans put on the animals and how it impacts them. His focus in the second iteration of the project was to "depict the winners and more so the losers” and “those which stand out and those which are deemed the “The Unchosen Ones.” After taking over 60 portraits of these animals in their natural, competitive environment, he "followed up with the competitors, photographing them after they returned to their native grounds. "The process of developing a project is one of the most invigorating parts of process and is something that we should all embrace as artists. We have to let go of our preconceived notions of what we think the outcome will be, and let the project develop over time. Usually our first idea is never our best--so be patient.

The Production

Now that the idea was fully realized, there was the act of producing the final pictures. That in itself is an art form. For this project, there were so many moving parts that all came together in the end. The first thing to discuss is the equipment that was used to make the vision a reality. Listed below is the gear list.

Equipment List

Camera: PhaseOne 645 XF with IQ 260 medium format digital back

Lenses: Schneider Kreuznach 80mm LS and 55 mm LS 

Lighting: Two Broncolor Move 1200 W/s packs, various modifiers and gels

Backdrops: Hand-painted by Sarah Oliphant

Lots of sandbags and c-stands

Gear cart with essentials: C-stands, backdrop, lighting, and most important, printed portfolio of fine-art work, Mahnomen County Fair, MN

The Use of Backdrops in the Scenes

When you look at the "Unchosen Ones" series, one of the first things that you’ll notice is the use of exposed backdrops in the scenes. At first, your photographer’s eye might tell you to just crop in, but the longer you look at it, the more you realize that, in Kern’s words, it “helps to create a place of importance, one where the ordinary is elevated to the extraordinary." He explains that:

The backdrop elevates the subject, positioning them outside of a normal context. Keep in mind the vulnerable: these kids were among the last place contenders at county fairs. We all know what it feels like to not be chosen: for love, a team, a job, or juried art exhibition. Empathy is a key component to the project.

Kern makes a good point here. When you stand in front of a backdrop and there are fancy lights surrounding you, you feel important, and it makes you feel like you matter. He elaborates on this topic by explaining that these photographs were created at county fairs and beyond the constraints of an indoor, traditional photography studio. Place matters, as the context of the county fair surroundings indicates a time and place to situate the work. Often the backgrounds are equally as interesting as the foreground."

He makes a strong point about being inspired by the historical greats of photography and denotes their use of the backdrop in their scenes.  He tells me that "it is important to note there is no such thing as a “signature style” when it comes to using a backdrop, as roots go back to the beginning of photography." He goes on to inform me that:

Some of the earliest roots of animal contests coincide with the beginning of photography, which debuted at the World’s Fair in 1851. I love seeing the spirit of competition alive and well today, as demonstrated through hard work, pride, and passion of exhibitors. Photographs such as Adrien Tournachon (1825 - 1903) aka Nadar were among the very first to document this subject matter. Irvin Penn (1917 - 2009) and Richard Avedon (1923- 2004) also used the backdrop as elevate the viewer as a formal element. Contemporary photographer like Annie Leibovitz (1949 -) continue to employ the backdrop in editorial work.

The portraits instantly evoke a feeling of empathy and emotional connection to the subjects being observed.

How He Connected with His Subjects

Across the collection of images in the series, the subjects stand strong and powerful. The raw connection with the camera and photographer is evident in all of the portraits. There is a certain level of trust. After speaking with Kern, I was fascinated by his process of how he connected with his subjects to capture something uniquely beautiful.  He told me that, "before clicking the shutter, he [I] said: “Show me what next year’s Grand Champion could look like.” The instant he said that, the person’s demeanor and body language immediately shifted to something more confident: they stood up strong with their head held high and showed what a true winner looked like in their eyes. That's the moment when he took the picture. He captured the competitors in their best light, despite being the "unchosen" ones. He explained that:

"The kids were offered a chance to demonstrate confidence, a positive attitude, and exhibit hope for the future. And they did. To the world."

The most admirable thing about the way he photographed this project was not just in his technical ability to capture great light, but in the way, he carried himself as a person. He did not just randomly pick strangers to photograph, take a few pictures, and walk away. Instead, he built a lifelong connection and trust in the people he was photographing. After he took the photos, months later, he reconnected with his subjects, and gave them a signed copy of their portrait. Through this project, he used photography to create something that would impact these kids for the rest of their lives.

The Exhibitions 

One of the best things photography gives people is a platform to present their voice and vision to world. Kern in this case has been extremely fortunate in how far the project has traveled and exhibited. His work has been exhibited in a number of notable exhibitions including the National Portrait Gallery (London, UK), the Museum of Modern Art (Tbilisi, Georgia), the Yixian International Photography Festival (Anhui, China), and a solo exhibition at the Griffin Museum of Photography (Boston, USA). Most recently, he was excited to tell me that “The Unchosen Ones" was the CENTER Choice Award Winner, Curator’s Choice by juror Corey Keller, Curator of Photography at the SF Museum of Modern Art.

THE FENCE, Durham, NC, USA, 2016. Photo: Chris Ogden.

Cannon Valley Fair 2018, Cannon Falls, MN, USA. Photo: R. J. Kern

Solo exhibition at Burnet Fine Art & Advisory, Wayzata, MN, 2018, USA. Photo: R. J. Kern

Solo exhibition at Griffin Museum of Photography, Winchester, MA, 2018, USA. Photo: R. J. Kern

National Geographic magazine (November 2017) spread featuring “Kol and Annabelle, Anoka County Fair, MN, 2016” and “Rylie and Nelly, Clay County Fair, MN, 2016."

The Final Images

Bryce with Freaky Freddy and Nathan with Skittles, Isanti County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 from the series The Unchosen Ones (2016)

Kol and Annabell, Anoka County Fair, Minnesota from the series The Unchosen Ones (2016)

Louis and Dumb, Freeborn County Fair, Minnesota from the series The Unchosen Ones (2016)

Kenzi and Hootie, Anoka County Fair, Minnesota from the series The Unchosen Ones (2016)

Nick and unnamed sheep, West Otter Tail County Fair, Minnesota, from the series The Unchosen Ones (2016)


When you're so invested in a project, by the end of it, you walk away a changed person. The project that you take on will inevitably have impact on how you see the world and yourself as a person.

To wrap up this article, I asked Kern if he could provide us with some closing remarks and lessons that he learned while pursuing his project "The Unchosen Ones". One of the first things he took away from this project was the importance of making your work accessible to the community. "Most people don’t go to art museums or galleries to view work." rather, he suggests that you should "bring it back to the community where the work was created". Going back to the communities where the images were first created shows your investment in the subjects and the project.

One of the reasons this project was so successful was because of his approach to releasing it. He advises people that are thinking about releasing their projects to the world, to not release a "half-baked" unpolished version of your work. Rather think about the long-term impact of the project. He explains that:

You want to show only your best work, a culmination of good prints, good ideas, and a solid presentation. One that has been thoughtfully designed, edited, sequenced, for example. Little details matter. If certain decisions like print size, edition, pricing, etc, are not made, it will reflect on the overall thought process of the work. Snaps on Instagram of work not fully realized, while may create a instant gratification, can unfortunately lead to an “half-baked” image, idea, or project that won’t fully resonate with your intended audience. 

COLLECTOR’S EDITION of “The Unchosen Ones” (Edition 20 2 APs) includes includes essays by independent curator Alison Nordström, PhD and Joe Scapanski, Minnesota State Fair Board of Managers.

If you were inspired by this project, and would like to see it in completion or support the future endeavors of it, be sure to check out his website where he offers limited edition prints and collectable items, or follow him on Instagram for project updates and news.

If you're thinking about making your vision a reality, and starting on that personal project you always wanted to do, take the next step and start it today! Share your voice with the world — it's waiting to listen. What are some personal projects you have done and how have they impacted you? Share your stories in the comments below!

All images used with permission of R.J. Kern.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Eli Dreyfuss is a professional portrait photographer based in sunny Miami, Florida. He focuses on making ordinary people look like movie stars in his small home studio. Shortly after graduating high school he quickly established himself in the art world and became an internationally awarded & published artist.

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This is one of the best articles I've read on this site. It's concise enough that I never felt someone was looking for a word count. It was very explanatory, and it delved deeply and personally into the artist and their project. The photos are amazing, and this whole thing was very motivating. Great work

Totally agree. Nice to read an article that was thought out, and talks about the background and thought process of a project, and not just the gear used. Truly a refreshing change. Hopefully we see more like this.

Really nice project and photos, I have always liked the backdrops in the pictures like he did here, the display of the large prints at the fair was a good way to show them...Reminds me of August Sander and Mike Disfarmer work.

The backdrop maker is listed: https://www.oliphantstudio.com. The drops are all unique, hand-made to order. No product code. Each one is unique.

I got a contact bankruptcy just looking at the cost of the lights alone

Where did you find the equipment list? Am I blind?

Never-mind...I have confirmed I am indeed blind...holy hell...its literally listed at the beginning

I met RJ at a workshop in California about 10 years ago. It is really cool to see how much he has grown into his own and being recognized for being an exceptional photographer. Congrats, RJ.