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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a group of emerging image-makers, chosen from hundreds of nominations by international experts. Throughout September, BJP-online is sharing their profiles, originally published in issue #7898 of the magazine.

Kennedi Carter’s subjects exude power: from a woman with bleach blonde hair falling beneath her waist to a vibrantly-dressed family — young and old — gathered before the lens. In the series Icarus, a model extends her gargantuan white-wings and floats across the frames in patent knee-high boots. While in Ridin’ Sucka Free!several men pose alongside horses — their eyes stare out into the camera, sharp and narrow. 

“The most radical thing you can do as a human being is to use your imagination,” says 21-year-old Carter on the phone from Durham, North Carolina. “We have existed under the conditions in which we currently live for so long it is hard to imagine anything different; our imaginations have been colonised.” Carter employs her work to decolonise: to picture new worlds, and this involves reimagining the past as much as it does the present. 

© Kennedi Carter.

In her recent series Flexing/New Realm, which was due to be exhibited at CAM Raleigh this March, but which has been delayed by Covid-19, Carter re-imagines Old Master portraits from the Elizabethan period. Black individuals — many of whom were servants and entertainers for white households — are absent from such paintings, unless they are pictured as subservient. At the time, this amplified the white protagonist’s wealth and Carter’s series “talks about the absence of Black bodies in these works … unpacking what wealth means to Black people, and whether the idea of wealth has to be white adjacent in order for it to be palatable”.

The Black subjects of Carter’s portraits take centre stage: oozing elegance and style in elaborate Elizabethan-dress. A white, tulle gown envelops its wearer — her nails long and pointy; her hair erupting in a grey cloud. An immense white ruff frames the face of a subject with vitiligo; a thick curl gently twirls aside her ear. Gold ribbons adorn a man in black — his head cocked; his gaze locked on the camera. “It brings together two things that have not been seen together and now they are and asks why it feels weird to see them at once,” continues Carter. 

© Kennedi Carter.

Carter’s work focuses on Black subjects, exploring both “the aesthetics and sociopolitical aspects of Blackness, as well as the overlooked beauties of Black experience: skin, texture, trauma, peace, love and community”. The subjects she delves into are familiar, focused upon people, places, and issues close to her. “Something very wise you can do is navigate towards expansive and intimate experiences that you have a connection with and are knowledgeable about,” she continues, “I gravitate towards these subjects because they are my life, and I want to document them in a way that feels beautiful.”

Her work draws upon personal experiences from the pain and uncertainty of a difficult break-up, which motivated the series East Durham Love, to the issue of Black representation. “I was having a problem with a lot of images and media that were circulating in conjunction to Black life,” she says, “pain and suffering were at the root of so much of what I was consuming.” Carter addresses these issues head-on, employing her art to develop and envision a world in which she would want her children and the children of others to live. Hope and beauty permeate her oeuvre: “I use my art to … give people something they can consume, which feels beautiful and makes them feel beautiful,” she says.

© Kennedi Carter.

The power and grace, which radiate from Carter’s full-body portraits evoke the work of Deana Lawson, who the photographer counts as an inspiration, alongside Carrie Mae Weems, the painters Titus Kaphar and Barkley L. Hendricks, among many others. Carter’s interest in photography was almost accidental: she took a photo class in high school and ended up enthralled. Currently, she works on personal projects and assignments, including, recently an editorial in Wired in which she photographs her family on Easter Sunday in lockdown — an annual tradition, which looked slightly different this year as a result of the pandemic.  

It was on seeing the editorial for Wired that I became captivated by Carter’s images — the nuances and complexities contained in such beautiful and uplifting photographs is a dynamic that is not easy to achieve. Her work feels simultaneously contemporary and timeless, incorporating aesthetics from art history, which have stood the test of time, and Carter’s work will undoubtedly do the same.

Ultimately, Carter calls upon her imagination to help create her images but, imagination also functions far beyond that process: “It is a necessity to move forward,” she says. Carter’s images transcend the frames that contain them. They address issues of representation, which have endured throughout history, while also visualising a present and a future of promise: “The world, as it is now, does not work, so we must do the work, imagine a new one, and then create it.”

© Kennedi Carter.
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