Shot mainly on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, “Back Home” pays homage to the community in which 22-year-old photographer Kendall Bessent grew up, and which he continues to call home. For Bessent, this community is a source of solace. For the second installment of Witness, our editorial series in partnership with Leica Camera, NeueJournal sat down with Bessent to talk about process, his experience with the Leica Camera SL2 and the complexities of Atlanta best defined by its people, its communities.
“I feel like whenever someone documents or photographs Atlanta it’s always from the scope of the rap industry, strippers or the club scene. And, yeah, that’s all a part of Atlanta, but I never felt like people captured the family or suburban side—the domestic life of Atlanta.”
So, to start off: the title, “Back Home.” Can you tell us about growing up in Atlanta and what inspired you to highlight your hometown as your project?
It was fairly based on my childhood growing up in the suburbs outside of Atlanta. I wanted it to be shot from the perspective of someone who is actually from my hometown. I feel like whenever someone documents or photographs Atlanta it’s always from the scope of the rap industry, strippers or the club scene. And, yeah, that’s all a part of Atlanta, but I never felt like people captured the family or suburban side—and its domestic life.
I called it “Back Home” because it’s a happy place for me. Whenever I return home to my family, my mom, my best friends, I enjoy myself so much. It was so much fun shooting the project and having my folks take part in it. My intention was to touch on family life, sisterhood and brotherhood and love, drawing on various family and friendship dynamics I grew up around in Atlanta. Apart from the two individual portraits I shot (“Home Team”), the rest are all group shots.
Let’s talk about some of the specific photos. What prompted you to shoot the image titled “Mal & Jas” in a garage?
Funny story. That shoot came together very last minute. I wanted to capture the love between my big brother Jamal (Mal) and his girlfriend, and also incorporate a vintage car for an old-school vibe very reminiscent of the culture that I remember distinctly from my childhood. The only person whom I had contact with who actually owns a vintage car is my big cousin, so we set up the shot at his house in the driveway. The dress she’s wearing is a vintage Jean Paul Gaultier dress that I pulled from a friend.
Tell us about “Home Team”—the two images that are paired together, one red and one blue.
I was inspired by the imagery of the crime drama film “Belly” directed by Hype Williams. At the beginning of the movie, Nas, DMX and their crew walk into a strip club to pull a heist—the lighting is a crazy neon blue all shot in slow motion under some heavy blacklight. I was inspired by that and the Atlanta street life. When I was a kid I remember getting designs cut into my hair, like, the Atlanta Braves or Falcons symbol. It just so happened, the day I shot those photos was the day the Braves won the World Series, and the players were repping the logo on the back of their heads. It was truly iconic. So I opted to incorporate red and blue to represent the Braves colors.
You often explore the complexities of Blackness and Black emotion through your photography. How has that shaped your work from when you were just starting out to where you are now?
I would say I started out as the “typical photographer” or what I had thought photography was—commercial work like taking wedding and graduation photos and things of that nature. It wasn’t until I had this epiphany that I can tell a story and convey emotions through my pictures alone that I gravitated toward showcasing Black emotion and Black life and just everything that deals with being Black. My work is an extension of me, an extension of my personality. It’s how I view the world.
“[There needs to be a] sense of intimacy between the photographer—me—and the person, and then making a very comfortable environment for them to have that third wall come down.”
How do you capture such intimacy and do you have a structure for your process? Do you go with an idea or do you like to have it more fluid, where you set up the situation and then you let it run and have it take its own shape?
I kind of just go with the flow of things. I don’t try to force my hand with a lot of subjects. When I am photographing someone, and if I want to capture their emotions and them as a person, I really just try to break down that third wall. I feel like when you tell someone, “Hey, I want to take a picture of you,” they automatically tense up or they feel like they gotta model and things like that. I always tell them like, “No, I don’t want you to model. I just want to take your photo. I want you to be yourself.”
[There needs to be a] sense of intimacy between the photographer—me—and the person, and then making a very comfortable environment for them to have that third wall come down.
What were you looking to take advantage of in terms of shooting on a Leica Camera? Do you think it helped shape your final result? Was there anything unique about using it?
The quality on it was crazy. I fell in love with the camera. I’ve never shot with a digital camera that was that crisp, saturated. And it’s so easy to use. On the post-production side, when I went in to edit, the colors I could play within the images made it almost like I was seeing the world in a different way. I know that sounds exaggerated, but that’s truly how I felt because the colors were so vibrant.
I decided to try the Leica Camera SL2 because people rave about it. The quality is otherworldly. That camera deserves all the hype.
Do you have certain photographers who influence you? What inspires you the most?
I feel like it’s a mix of photography and my life growing up in the South as a young Black man in America. Just the story of that inspires me a lot. I love Deana Lawson, she’s an amazing incredible photographer known for compelling portraits of black men and women around the world. I’m a huge fan of music video, film, commercial and television director Melina Matsoukas. And Gordon Parks, of course, best remembered for his iconic photos of poor Americans during the 1940s. Diane Arbus (who helped to normalize elevate marginalized groups and highlight the importance of proper representation of all people) is another one. And I love Tina Barney. [Her work is] poetic and emotional and beautiful—quite breathtaking the way she captures her subjects in their homes. I really resonate with it.
My peers also inspire me. And of course, my mom is a big inspiration for a lot of my work—she’s the reason I got into photography. And she’s an artist in her own right. She’s a hairstylist, so growing up in her salon and being surrounded by different influences, having access to fashion spreads and meeting different kinds of people while I was a kid, definitely inspires the work I create now.
I read your i-D interview and learned about how you had left your day job and decided to pursue your passion. I would love to hear a bit more about that.
Last year I actually got my first full-time job in my adult life. And I feel like it was almost a test to see how bad I wanted to accomplish my dreams. While I was working that job, it was taking me away from my passions and it made it ten times harder to actually do shoots and pursue my interests. It got to the point where it was like, OK, I either take this leap of faith or it doesn’t happen. So I quit my job and I haven’t looked back. I’m so blessed to be able to create and make a living doing what I love.
And I always have to remind myself that I have to rely on my talent. That’s what grounds me in all my decisions, risky decisions. I always tell myself, If this doesn’t work out, I still have my talent. I’m a Sagittarius, so I’m very impulsive when it comes to things. I often take leaps of faith. That was one moment where I was like, OK, I need to make this decision for myself and for my career.