Johnathon Kelso’s work has a simple diaristic quality. His sensitive documentation of the world around him is much more than capturing rural Americana, but an ability to look beyond the commonplace. POSI+TIVE discusses what humanity, faith and trust means to him played out on the stage of the American south.
How long have you been taking photographs?
Going on six years now.
Your photographs are from all over the States. Where are you actually from?
I’m from Niceville, Florida – a small town in the panhandle in an area commonly referred to as “the redneck riveria.”
What do you look for when photographing? Is your method diaristic or planned out?
When I photograph, oftentimes I’m going out to pray and talk to the Lord, so it’s good for me to shut off my mind from distractions when set out on familiar roads. I’ve never really been one to plan out too much and I’m always overwhelmed with what’s on offer when it comes to traveling along the back roads of the south. That kind of traveling and praying has always been good to me. As far as what I’m looking for? I reckon even if I’m not aware of it, I’m looking for things that punctuate the subtle characteristics of the American south – ranging anywhere from trucker bars to church folk.
Are most of the people you photograph friends and family? If not, how do you approach strangers when you want to photograph them?
Most times it’s strangers I’m taking pictures of, which is something that used to terrify me – now it’s something I long for. I can use photography as a means to get to know strangers and have them know me. I approach everyone about the same; I tell them my name and ask ‘em theirs, then ask where they’re from. You’d be surprised how much conversation you can get going with those two questions.
You clearly have a great affinity for the places and people where you live. What is particularly unique about rural America to you?
I love everything about the south, I always have. When I started taking pictures years ago in Memphis I was immediately drawn to the mystery and splendor that small southern towns had to offer. There are just some real interesting people living here that never cease to amaze me with their stories. The rich history that lies beneath the overgrowth of what time and the fast paced nature of man has done in these places is well worth digging up. I love that here in the south you can walk right down the middle of the road in some of these places and no one will look at you funny.
There is always a give and take relationship when photographing some one. Do you find your subjects more trusting? What do they think of your interest in photographing them?
I think people, especially in the south, have a hard time trusting anyone (even if the intentions are good) that may want to exploit their lives to others they don’t know. I’ve made a lot of good friends who first were complete strangers just by asking to photograph them, and on the other hand, I’ve had a lot of people confused and even angered by my want to capture their likeness.
Just this past Sunday I drove down to Ellenwood, Georgia to try and photograph a small Baptist church comprised of only four members (one of which being the Pastor). I arrived early and talked with each member as they came in the door – each one more boggled by my presence there than the last, until finally the pastor arrived and sternly told me they weren’t here to be my entertainment for the evening. It didn’t matter how many questions of theirs I answered or how good my want was to make a picture there. Sometimes that feeling of being exposed scares people and makes them feel uneasy. It takes going beyond just wanting to get a photograph. People want to know you are genuine and that you care enough to get to know them and likewise share a bit of yourself in return.
Born in 1983, Kelso started to photograph while living in Memphis, Tennessee in 2006. He is currently living in Atlanta, Georgia with his dog Copernicus.