Industry Insights: Kennedi Carter on breaking barriers and making history

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In collaboration with Direct Digital – the leading international photographic equipment rental service – 1854 Media and British Journal of Photography presents Industry Insights, a series delving into the ins and outs of working in the photography industry.

As British Vogue’s youngest ever cover photographer, Carter joins a crop of record-breaking Black artists at the forefront of the editorial sphere. She unpacks how she got noticed, her organic approach, and the power of community in driving change

21-year-old Kennedi Carter has hit headlines in recent months for making history. In December 2020, she became the youngest ever photographer to shoot a British Vogue cover: an instantly iconic portrait of Beyoncé, her signature gaze searing straight through the lens as she balances sensuously in a tantalizing Thierry Mugler bodysuit. A rising star of the fine art world, the 20-page fashion story was – astonishingly – Carter’s first ever editorial. But just days after the issue dropped, she was booked to shoot Erykah Badu and Summer Walker for Rolling Stone. And just like that, the Texas native’s professional horizons were infinite.

As for how the initial opportunity befell her, Carter is still piecing it together. “British Vogue had acquired my portfolio a while ago,” she recalls. “Around June. Then I got a call that I was going to be bid for a job, and they were waiting for the subject to choose who they wanted to be photographed by.” She had no idea it was Beyoncé – but when she found out, she made sense of it as a “trust thing”. “I know she wanted a Black woman,” Carter says, and she suspects their shared Southern roots helped strengthen the affinity. Working closely with Carter was creative director Kwasi Fordjour (also co-director of Beyonce’s visual album Black is King), and the shoot was styled remotely via Zoom by British Vogue editor-in-chief, Edward Enninful.

British Vogue, December 2020 © Kennedi Carter.

It’s not hard to see why Carter was selected for the assignment; inspired by the likes of Deana Lawson and Carrie Mae Weems, her increasingly revered personal work encompasses delicate and provocative portrayals of Black beauty, love, and community. A more obscure question, perhaps, is how she made it onto Enninful’s radar in order to be presented as an option. Carter largely cites the guidance of New York-based photographer Dana Scruggs: “Dana would always say ‘email editors with your portfolio and constantly update them,’” she explains. “She used to make spreadsheets on which editors she’d spoken to and when… Or if there was a person I wanted to get in contact with, she’d give me their information or introduce me.” 

In 2019, Scruggs became the first Black person to shoot a Rolling Stone cover in the magazine’s 53 year history. Now a highly sought-after name after six years of unpaid self-assigning, she knows all too well how impenetrable the industry can be to Black artists; adamant not to be a monolith, she’s built a reputation for her commitment to helping others through the door. The moral? “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” says Carter, who struck up a friendship with Scruggs several years ago via Instagram DMs. “Especially in the Black community, there are so many people willing to extend a helping hand, so that you’re not by yourself.” 

Scruggs sat alongside Tyler Mitchell and Nadine Ijewere — the first Black person and the first Black woman to shoot Vogue covers respectively in 2018 — in Antwaun Sargent’s The New Black Vanguard (2019), which mapped out a new generation of photographers challenging portrayals of the Black body and spearheading a new aesthetic in fashion and art. Carter’s achievement is no doubt an extension of the same cultural breakthrough. “[These] have been some of the best covers these publications have had in a great deal of time,” says Carter. And crucially, they represent a collective triumph: “I don’t think it’s just about me, or Tyler, or Nadine, or anybody that’s made a cover. It’s something really beautiful about community.”

LaKeith Stanfield for Entertainment Weekly, January 2021 © Kennedi Carter.

“[These] have been some of the best covers these publications have had in a great deal of time… I don’t think it’s just about me, or Tyler, or Nadine, or anybody that’s made a cover. It’s something really beautiful about community”

Erykah Badu for Rolling Stone, December 2020 © Kennedi Carter.
Dan Levy for Bustle, December 2020 © Kennedi Carter.

As marginalised voices have pushed their way to the industry’s forefront in recent years, we’ve witnessed the way discrimination repackages itself: how it dilutes, but never disappears. On a Facebook post in 2019, the photographer Marcus Smith explained: “If you’re a Black photographer, the assignments that you get commercially and editorially are to shoot mostly other Black people, whereas our white counterparts are given the ability to dip in and out, which in turn widens the audience/clientele for them.” This problem of pigeon-holing – that posits the white (male) perspective as universal, without granting other identities the same privilege – must be tackled to achieve genuine equality. And recent high-profile assignments – such as Carter shooting Dan Levy for Bustle; Scruggs shooting Pete Buttigieg for GQ, or Quil Lemons becoming the youngest ever photographer to shoot a Vanity Fair cover with Billie Eilish – is a hopeful indicator that editors are starting to think outside of the confines of minority artists’ own communities. 

“We’re all just pretty much human at our core,” remarks Carter, whose list of dream subjects posits none other than Ozzy Osborne at the top. “You never know what someone means to someone else” – or, indeed, how a different perspective can capture a subject in a fresh or innovative light. Ultimately, it’s this organic, “human” approach that Carter centers within her practice, whether it’s fine art, editorial or other. “I live in North Carolina. Living in a place where you’re away from everything, it humbles you a bit,” she muses. She doesn’t think too much, or pressurise herself to have it all figured out. “I’m just doing what I want.”

© Kennedi Carter.
© Kennedi Carter.

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Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.