Future Without Fear | A Conversation With Kennedi Carter and Rob English

Subtitle: Behind the lens with the esteemed photographer and the cultural change specialist

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Photo by Joshua White

The greatest appeal to the art of photography is the ability to allow for people to see what you see, to share a set of eyes with the rest of the world. This makes photographers storytellers in a way—each photo marking a new line, page, or chapter in their book. Kennedi Carter is committed to telling the story of the Black experience. The Durham-born, Dallas-bred photographer is committed to documenting the very space she occupies as an individual—that of a Black mother.

This past January, Carter took part in FUTURE WITHOUT FEAR, an exhibit brought about by THE WORK, an innovation and storytelling group founded by Rob English and Ty Stiklorius. FUTURE WITHOUT FEAR seeks to explore, highlight, and amplify the stories of those underrepresented, thereby inspiring change and conversation. The exhibit featured the works of artists Naima Green, Abdi Ibrahim, Clifford Prince King, Doug Segars, Magdalena Wosinska, and Carter herself. 

Having photographed some of pop culture’s biggest names—Beyonce, Simone Biles, and Amanda Gorman, to name a few—Carter has cemented her status as one of this generation’s strongest illustrators of Black life. 

Below, Flaunt speaks with cultural change specialist Rob English and photographer Kennedi Carter on early influences, working on FUTURE WITHOUT FEAR, the creative process, and more.

By Kennedi Carter

Firstly, I really admire your commitment to documenting Black life. Is this something you've always known you want to do? 

I think for a bit of time, yes. I think I always knew what I was most interested in. I think I've just been trying to find, I guess, different settings and areas within black life, that I was most interested at the time and most inspired by. 

Could you speak to some of your early influences? What initially drew you to the camera? 

I think one of them was my grandmother. I remember she was someone that we considered to be the family photographer or documentarian. She took a lot of the photos of my family herself. I always found that to be very interesting and inspiring. I think when I was in High school I was always looking for Black photographers in particular for inspiration. But I think I was more so attracted to things that were more pretty instead of more raw. I was looking at a lot of editorial and magazine photography at the time, rather than doing fine art stuff. I think that's where my interests pivoted in most recent years.

Is there any other medium that you feel at home with? 

I think I'm still searching for it. I've been taking ceramics courses and writing. I’m also trying to get a bit more into poetry these days as well. I think I'm always constantly searching for inspiration, but I'm just the type that doesn't like to do anything unless I’m really good at it, or at least I feel really good at it. I'm still trying to find that.

Speaking from experience, I know that navigating historically white spaces such as the professional/art/editorial world as a black woman can come with its fair share of struggles. Do you have any experiences with this? And if so, how do you navigate it?

I think in its own unique ways, there can be a bit of misogynoir in any workplace setting. And I think in editorial industries it's a great deal of just getting by, and how you present yourself, how you communicate.

I think just overall figuring out how to navigate conversations and sometimes even code-switch in order to, I guess maintain connections. Yeah, that's one thing that I feel like I've noticed. 

By Joshua White

Can you speak to how you got involved with Future Without Fear? 

I think it was about last summer that they had reached out to me about working on this project.  It was one that I was excited about because I knew that I wanted to make a project that was about motherhood and black mothering in general. It just felt like a good opportunity to be able to explore that, and I was very excited about it. 

What was your experience working with like-minded artists?

I think I had a good time, more so working with people that aren't necessarily artists, but the way that they approach mothering, almost as if it is an art, was something that really stuck out to me. I think that's what I was trying to do within this project was just like—to not photograph people who are mothering within the sense of what we expect it to be, which is a mother having a child, but also finding a way to photograph other people's unique relationships to the act of mothering.

I think that's what inspired me most, mainly because there are ways that we interact with and approach mothering as a verb in our daily lives more than we know. And I think it's a greater influence than we expect it to be.

Do you have a set process when embarking on a shoot, whether it's for editorial or a personal interest shoot, or do you prefer to let things happen organically?

I try to let things happen more organically, but sometimes that's just not the case. I usually go about scouting and searching for this person that  sparks the inspiration that I have for the project and fits. And then I go out to them and we spend the day together and I photograph them.

I feel like in our generation, we're sort of raised with the “Take what you love and make it your career” notion. But I feel like oftentimes turning what you love into your career can distort your view on the craft entirely. How do you separate work-photography-Kennedi from leisure-photography-Kennedi? 

I think work-me feels like editorial-me and Fine Art, personal work, all that feels like leisure to me. I feel like I'm always creating in some way. But I think it's more so, when I realize that my editorial work doesn't necessarily feel like I'm creating for me, and it feels like I'm creating for someone else, I think that what I want to gain back is being my own person and making my own work. Sometimes there are days where I feel like my editorial or my commercial work falls in line with what it is that I'm trying to make—the larger perspective of what I want my archive to be in, you know, 40, 50 years.

I think that's something that I'm kind of prioritizing now. I think leisure-me is always at home, chilling with my kid, or trying to take him from point A to point B. And overall just navigating, mothering. Work-me and leisure-me at the end of the day, we're both still working and I think that's how it's always gonna be.

What do you hope people take away from your work?

I hope that people are exposed to a different state of being, and a different side of a life outside of their own. I kind of like world building and I hope that when some people view my photos, they feel like they're stepping into another world or the way I see the world. I hope that people view my work from a judgment-free lens. It's a work in progress, but it's something that I am really aspiring to do.

By Joshua White

Rob English

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and why you co-founded THE WORK? 

I'm Rob English. My background is in traditional advertising. I've worked on a lot of lifestyle brands over my career: fashion, women's fashion, sneakers, consumer packaged goods, things of that nature. At some point I started working directly with music artists and creative directing for artists. So that really pushed me into a zone where I was literally on artist teams and through some of that work, you know, for people like Lady Gaga, John Mayer, Meghan Trainor to John Legend. I ended up working with him and really going down the social impact rabbit hole and being exposed to things that were aligned with my values. So at some point my partner Ty Stiklorius, I were just like, “let's really dig deep here. Let’s not only do amazing cool, sexy stuff for music artists like album cycles and creative tour design-how do we take some of these superpowers and bring them to social impact and education initiatives that we believe in?”

THE WORK is really the intersection of culture and impact. We still work with brands, we still work with music artists, but we also work with a lot of education initiatives through mass incarceration, the future of education, and entities like Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The MacArthur Foundation, Southern New Hampshire University, and Chegg, just to name a few.

What's the biggest difference between working with somebody like Lady Gaga versus creating a story or a campaign about social issues and social impact?

I don't think there's a difference really. Obviously you have to tailor communications to an audience, but you know, I believe that in large the magic formula for getting people to care about things that they should care about or we believe they should care about, it's presenting it in a way that is aligned with the things that they naturally do care about.

So a lot of the work that I've done that was targeting Gen Z audiences et cetera, we didn't look at our competition as other impact initiatives or education initiatives, we looked at our competition as the games that they love, our competition was the music that they were drawn to, the content that they chose to consume. How do we color these things that we think will actually be beneficial for them in a way that feels naturally aligned with the stuff that they really do care about.

By Clifford Prince King

What is it like trying to connect to Gen Z? As an audience, are they a hard target to hit?

Well, I think probably every generation was a hard target to hit, especially from the perspective of the generation that came before them. I would say Gen Z is unique in comparison to millennials in that Gen Z is what I call the ‘The Programmer Generation.’ For us Millennials and for Gen Xers, we grew up in an age where everything was programmed for us. The television that we watched was programmed and fed to us, the music that we listened to on traditional terrestrial radio was, was programmed and fed to us, the things that we purchased were programmed for us. We had to go to the local mall, things had to be localized in a way in order to get them, versus Gen Z, who has grown up fully in a digital age where you are shopping in boutiques all around the world through the internet. So, you're not limited and you're programming your own and curating your life in that way. The content that you consume from television and film, it's all streaming. You're not watching traditional television or cable anymore, primarily being on YouTube, et cetera, and curating your own content. Being able to acknowledge that and give the Gen Z audience the respect that they deserve- I think it’s really about a sense of honesty and authenticity, which are not the same, Gen Z, they can smell bullshit a mile away.

I think that's a large part of why things like TikTok have become so dominant as a platform in our culture because it stripped away even the few surface layers that Instagram still had intact and really gave people this ability to connect to things that were raw, or at least they felt raw at the time.

Where did you guys get the idea to put on FUTURE WITHOUT FEAR?

FUTURE WITHOUT FEAR really spawned from the work that we were doing in talking about pathways for young people. We think about this question: If you had no fear, no barriers, who would you be?

That’s really the core concept of FUTURE WITHOUT FEAR. We want to acknowledge that even the ability to think about your future in that way is a luxury that most people don't have. We wanted to create a platform that would begin to, one, elevate the voices of this generation at risk: black and brown voices, kids from underserved communities who struggle with issues like mental health, identity, sexuality, home insecurity, young people that have gone through the foster care system or who are formerly incarcerated. It’s about being able to first and foremost help them see that they are possible. We were trying to think of a platform that we could create that would elevate these voices and do it in a way that, and like I was saying earlier, felt organic to the things that are reflective in their world.

They can see people that look like them, that speak like them, but they’re tapping into these themes of empathy and identity in a way that can help strengthen as well as honor these young people. That was sort of where it spawned and it snowballed through some of the work with our partners and creatively within house. It turned into this huge platform where we are able to get these incredible world class photographers to participate in our show, for a fraction of the rates and things that they would normally participate in. We were able to get some really incredible moving photography and art to guide into what we liked to think was a pretty powerful experience here in Los Angeles. 

What kind of feedback did you guys get? From viewers- how did people receive this?

It was incredible. I'm pausing a little bit, because I want to say it puts me in this head space where I’m like, ‘this is all I wanna do.’ Just because of what we were able to provide for people to feel, people were moved. We had this convergence of people from the entertainment industry because of our relationships and the people that we work with to the fashion industry, to the art world, to young people, college students, to skateboarders. There was this convergence of folks onto FUTURE WITHOUT FEAR that felt seen in all ages and folks that weren't necessarily people of color, the best way I could describe it is that people were really moved. 

There was something about the power of the spirit that was captured, that was able to touch people of all ages, all nationalities. Most importantly, it sort of did it in a way where it removed all heirs. I've heard even from our opening event, people describe it as something that you don't see in Los Angeles anymore because nobody's posing. No one is being somewhere just to be somewhere. They're actually engaged and moved, as they're taking in an experience, which was, for me, the greatest compliment of all time. 

Photo by Joshua White

I'm curious to see how other cities will receive this exhibition. Are you able to tell me where you guys are going next? 

Totally, the next stop will be Mexico City this August. We're working with an art school in Mexico City as our central education partner called Centro.

Is there a certain pattern or formula that you follow to ensure a successful impact in this field, or do you lean more on intuition and your own experience?

I really love and hate formulas. I do think we all apply formulas to things, but I try to pride myself on being willing to even have the formula of no formula if it feels like the right thing. One of the things that we did with this show as an example is, we really try to make sure that everything we do has a cultural appeal to it. It was an impact and a photography and art show, but it was really important to us to not just phone in doing merch for the show. We really went hard and designed a capsule collection with some cut-and-sew pieces with really well-produced items. We ended up doing a partnership with a local fashion boutique here in Los Angeles called Departamento as a sort of the teaser of the show. This happened in December to lead up to the actual show and knowing how, again,fashion is this thing that galvanizes communities,and strongly embodies the idea of expression.

We really wanted to make sure that FUTURE WITHOUT FEAR had that color and it went really great. People loved the capsule collection. We've been talking to people like 2 Chainz who loves the stuff, we were able to seed our things with different artists- we just saw Bad Bunny actually wearing our FUTURE WITHOUT FEAR cardigans in a recent performance that I'm sure his stylist got from this boutique here in Los Angeles. 

If there is a formula, it's this layer of just making sure that we're adding the elements of culture to the impact, and not just culture broadly, but in a way that feels extremely authentic. 

Do you have any insight or advice for the next generation of young people who are looking to come into the creative, cultural space?

Yes, I think it's the message of FUTURE WITHOUT FEAR in that whatever your dream is, whatever your goal is, whatever your wild and unreasonable idea of your future self or your dream career may seem- it's possible. We call FUTURE WITHOUT FEAR a study of possible, primarily because that's the core message and thing that we want young people to take away from this. I believe that seeing is believing. If I can see something or believe that something is even possible in my mind, then it is possible, right? That's the one big secret that as a creative person, we are not taught, but we should be. Whatever you dream up and desire for yourself, it's not crazy.

Who is an artist or piece of art that impacted you or inspired you to do what you do now?

There’s so many people that I'm inspired by. Trugoy the Dove from De La Soul just passed maybe a week or so ago, which was pretty heavy for a lot of people from my generation. I would say De La Soul's first album, Potholes In My Lawn. It's the one piece of music that I would point to, or body of work that I point to to say “this thing changed my life.” I would say that it changed my life because what it showed me was: whatever rules you think are in place, whatever the guidelines are that people say, “this is what's cool, this is what's not cool, this is acceptable, this is not acceptable,” fuck all of that. There are no rules. That confirmation I honestly believe has guided me throughout my entire life.  

Presely Ann Photography
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