The 21-year-old photographer on leaving art school, combatting the erasure of Black cowboys, and why she's not moving to New York or LA

Focused on tenderness and gentle beauty, 21-year-old photographer Kennedi Carter captures Black American narratives with a fresh and nuanced voice. Carter’s intimate narrative projects, such as Ridin’ Sucka Free and Soon As I Get Home, dive into topics ranging from Black horsemen to love stories to, recently,  her own family in North Carolina. Carter’s artistic aim is, primarily, to make her viewer feel good—she describes her work as “aim[ing] to reinvent notions of creativity and confidence in the realm of Blackness.”

Born in Dallas, Carter now lives and works in Durham, North Carolina, a place that she feels often grounds her work. Her image-making describes the American South in new terms, often creating rich and textured spaces of power for her subjects. It is easy to be drawn into the realm Carter has created; the gaze of her subjects is often confidently unwavering, and these images blend contemporary reality and historical reference into one visually striking moment.

I spoke with Carter over the phone about the realities of isolation as an artist, leaving art school (for now), the grounding qualities of working in a smaller city, and what it means to be creating such powerful images of Black American life in the South.

Des Magness: When did you start taking photographs? Tell me a little about finding your voice in your work.

Kennedi Carter: I started in high school. It was about three, four years ago. I took a photography class, and I enjoyed it a lot. I thought it was going to be something I could cruise through, but my teacher was more adamant about putting in effort, and I ended up liking it a lot. It was something that I stuck with. I was in college for two years, and I took some photography courses there which I enjoyed for itself, but I ended up moving onto a different path. It was what it was—I took time away from school, started focusing on broadening my portfolio and making work that I care about.

Des: You’re from Dallas, yeah?

Kennedi: Yeah.  I ended up moving to North Carolina, so that’s where I did all my schooling. But my family is all down in Texas. Where did I go to school…[laughs]…at this place called Jordan High School, down here.

Des: It’s kind of nice to have momentarily forgotten the name of your high school. Like, it’s that far back in your mind.

Kennedi: It’s really not that far, that’s the bad thing! I graduated three years ago now.

Des: Wow! Well, long ago only mentally then. So you went to college for two years. Where was that?

Kennedi: I went to college at USC Greensboro. I was going, initially, for photography, but then they had me doing this studio art program that had me drawing, and I was like no! This isn’t what I came here to do, why are you making me do this?

Des: Art school can be like that! You come in to do one thing and then you’re doing ten other things.

Kennedi: I ended up switching my major to African American Studies, which is kind of what gave me more information on the driving force behind my work, which I appreciate. I decided ok, I’m just going to go get my masters, everything will be good, and then, I decided that I was going to take a break from school. I’m going to return, but I want to go to a different school. Once I hash that out, I’ll definitely be getting that out of the way.

Des: I wanted to ask you about this one project you’ve done, Ridin’ Sucka Free, which I really love. Those photographs are so set in their time and place. What were your thoughts behind making that work, who were the characters involved?

Kennedi: I wanted to make a project on Black horsemen. It was something in the South that I would see a lot. I think in the media, throughout history, you would rarely see Black cowboys. I feel like cowboy culture is one of the most fixture-like depictions of the Americana, and what American culture looks like. So, seeing Black faces being washed away from that culture, as well as Brown faces, when the foundation of cowboy culture is vaqueros, it was something I wanted to unpack. Whenever I’d travel throughout the South, I’d take a photograph of Black horseman. I don’t know if you’ve watched Queen and Slim?

Des: I haven’t seen it.

Kennedi: It’s this movie by Lena Waithe. One of the portions of the movie that I remember is when one of the characters, Slim, is on the run, and they passed by this horse ranch. And he’s like, “oh, I’ve never rode a horse before.” And then Queen responds with this quote about Black men and Black people on horses: Black people weren’t allowed to ride horses because you would have to look up at them while they’re on the horse.

Des: Did you shoot that project primarily in North Carolina?

Kennedi: I shot a lot in Houston, some in North Carolina, and another big portion in Philadelphia, actually. There’s a stable there called Fletcher Street Stables. It’s kind of like a safe space for inner city youth, and gives them space to, in the huge city area, become almost obsessed with agriculture through these animals that are in their stables.

Des: Did you create a relationship with that space through your project, or was it a one-time visit? How did you find that?

Kennedi: I found it through this other photographer, who’s name is Cian Oba-Smith. He’s a really amazing photographer, and he shot there. After that, I was like, I want to shoot there really bad. What I love about that space is it’s in Strawberry Mansion; in the midst of a lot of violence, it’s a no violence zone. You can’t bring that there. They squash any beef you have before you go in there. Some of the people that were there do jockey work now.

Des: Is it mostly an equestrian center?

Kennedi: I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s a stable, and then across the street, there used to be a lot, and now it’s a pasture.

Des: It’s perfect for your project; it sounds like it embodies both the peacefulness and the history behind your images. In addition to Cian Oba-Smith in terms of that project, what other artists have grounded and inspired your work?

Kennedi: This is a given, but Carrie Mae Weems, and I love Deana Lawson’s work—

Des: Oh yeah, I think she’s my number one favorite photographer.

Kennedi: She’s amazing. I love Zanele Muholi, they’re incredible, I have their most recent photobook, Hail the Dark Lioness. It’s an experience. LaToya Ruby Frazier, there’s a painter, Barkley Hendricks. He’s incredible. His work is very larger than life. There are a lot of people that I look up to.

Des: Do you have a sort of working relationship with any artists in North Carolina? Since you’re not working in a larger city, are there any bonds that keep you inspired in that area?

Kennedi: There are so many people that I’m inspired by that live here. I would describe them as mentors. If I’m doing anything and need guidance, I’ll circle back to them and they’ll give me some ideas.

Des: That’s so important. I was reading Sally Mann’s memoir the other day. She lives and works in Virginia, and she mentioned that photographers who aren’t working in metropolitan areas can be sort of lumped into one category or overlooked for work or grants, and how important it is for artists to pay attention to what’s happening in not only the South but non-New York and LA areas in general. Do you feel like there’s a lot of importance for you in your work being in North Carolina?

Kennedi: Part of it is that it’s just where I’m at, but I can see North Carolina as being the place I come back to. I feel like it’s really important to make work outside of New York and LA. I know when I do move, I don’t want to go to those places. I feel like there are so many people there sometimes making a lot of the same things. It can be kind of difficult to find new places or things to shoot because you’re so limited to that environment.

Des: It can be kind of a bubble. Which has its perks, there’s a big community, but at the same time it can be an echo chamber of ideas.

Kennedi: Yeah, I really encourage people to travel, really just follow your creative spirit, and go where you feel like you’re being called to go.

Des: That’s great advice.

Kennedi: If New York is the place you want to do that, then do that—but it’s not for me! [Laughs]

Des: Totally! Your work aims to amplify the beauties and nuances of the Black American experience. What has it been like making that work specifically in the South?

Kennedi: I think it’s been really fun! That’s the wrong way to say it, but it’s been great. I think I’ve met all types of people that I probably—definitely—wouldn’t have met otherwise. I think doing it down here has molded my style.

Des: Yeah, your perception.

Kennedi: Yeah, I don’t think I would have been able to get my style, my perception, how it is if I had started anywhere else.

Des: When you’re working with subjects, are you usually finding strangers to shoot, in different niches, are you working with people you know? What’s your dynamic like with your different subjects?

Kennedi: Sometimes, I’ll scout people on Instagram, but a lot of the people I’m photographing I’ll meet randomly, and sometimes I’ll meet people through friends, or sometimes it’ll be people I knew in high school. I really just ask around.

Des: What has this year been like for you, as an artist? What are you working on now?

Kennedi: It’s been sort of frustrating to come to the realization that I’m not the only person that has to stand still at the moment. I’m just trying to give myself time to recuperate and rest. I think something I do a lot is try to take on all the assignments I can, partly because they can be hard to come by in North Carolina, but it’s also hard turning down assignments sometimes because I don’t want to look bad to editors. I kind of feel like I have to work three times as hard given that I’m a Black woman in a very white male-dominated industry. It’s been frustrating. But having time to rest and realizing everyone else is resting.

Des: Yeah, and by force!

Kennedi: Right, it’s something I’ve been forced to do. I’ve been working on more self portraits, photographing my family a lot more. Things are slowly opening back up, I’ve been easing my way into working on another project I’ve been enjoying too.

Des: Is photographing your family something that was part of your practice before, or is that a new thing for you?

Kennedi: I photographed my god sisters most, I feel like they remind me of me and my own sisters. Following COVID, that’s who I started taking more pictures of. It was really fun to do. My mom is trying to frame all these images I took of them.

Des: Is there anything specific you aim for your viewers to take away from your images, at large? I know that’s a pretty open-ended question since you have a lot of different projects.

Kennedi: I do! I feel like my work kind of feels all over the place sometimes, but I think when people look at my work, I just want them to walk away feeling good. Black people especially. I feel like so much imagery we consume that’s centered around Black life has suffering at the epicenter. I’m trying to make work that counters that narrative, work that is beautiful and makes people feel good, Black people especially, feel beautiful. I think that’s the driving force behind the work I’m making currently.

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