Johnathon Kelso was born in Niceville, Florida and is currently based in Atlanta, Georgia. His photographs of Christian worship in the South, specifically the Sacred Harp singing groups of Alabama and Georgia, are by turns candid and commanding. Juror Mary Stanley chose two photos from his I Want to Die A-Shouting series to be included in this year’s Selects exhibition.
When did you first become interested in photography?
I first became interested in photography in 2004 while living in Memphis. I was dating a pretty girl, and we could go around on adventures making snapshots with a dinky point and shoot digital camera. When the relationship ended, I continued to photograph Memphis and fell in love with the grit of the city. There was a lot to see and take in during that time of my life.
What kind of research do you do before your projects?
I wish I could say that I do a ton of research before each project, but that’s just not true. I generally have a specific visual theme that I’d like to accomplish going into a project, and from there, I try to jump in and see what happens. I don’t always know what I’m trying to convey until I’m knee deep in the surroundings of a place and can get a feel for the people I’m photographing. Armed with some foreknowledge of my subject and with a tendency to ask folks a lot of questions, I do alright. I often find that as a project evolves it can change shape and lead in directions entirely backwards from where I started. I kind of like the fun of it all, really.
What role does religion play in your work? Are you a religious person?
If we were having a drink at a bar and you didn’t hear about Jesus during our time together, it’d be a shocker. So yes, I’m religious to the extent that I live to glorify and make much of the name our Lord, Jesus Christ. The result of my conversion means that now even my photography can become a means of making that happen. That of course can take on a multitude of different forms, whether it be through photographing explicit expressions of Christian worship in the South, or genuinely taking the time to get to know the folks I encounter. I’m always happy to share the Gospel with anyone willing to listen, and I hope that the photographs I produce reflect that in some way.
Do you have a dream project?
I would like to photograph every active Primitive Baptist congregation in the United States. Given there are a more than a few hundred just in the state of Georgia alone, that’s a real tall order! The last photographic survey of the Primitive Baptists (that I’m aware of) was completed in the late 70’s and focused mainly on a large handful of Progressive Primitive Baptist congregations in the South. The survey I propose would extend far beyond that with hopes of documenting dwindling Primitive Baptist church congregations throughout the States before they’ve disappeared.
How has your work changed over time?
If anything, my work has slowed down a lot. I try not to rush my projects as I used to do in the past and in doing so, I can take breaks, go work on something else, and come back to a project with a fresh set of eyes.
Who are your influences?
I gained a lot of influence early on from William Eggleston. Having started making photos in Memphis, it was impossible not to look to him for inspiration on how to properly document the South.
Charles R. Franklin, is another one. I met Charles one year at a singing in Henagar, Alabama. Come to find out, he is an excellent photographer who documented Sacred Harp singing long before I had picked up my first camera. I have two of his photographs currently hanging in my house, and his work always encourages me do things better.
On a contemporary level, there are so many great photographers out there right now. To name a few, Bryan Schutmaat, Aaron Canipe, Rachel Boillot, Roger May, Stacy Kranitz, and the list goes on.
Also, it would be very remiss of me if I didn’t mention my good friend and talented writer, Hannah Palmer from East Point, Georgia. Her writings have influenced me throughout the years and at least two of my projects have been started in good part due to her encouragement and guidance.
What is the last great song or album you listened to?
The last album I listened to was Bert Jansch’s Jack Orion LP. I was introducing my 6 month old son to some of my favorite music the other day and that record was one that really got him going.
What are you working on right now?
My current project, As God is my Witness, is a series of photographs mingling visions from Gone with the Wind alongside modern day Southerners trying to come to grips with their Confederate heritage. The series takes a closer look at active Sons of Confederate Veterans groups within the South and the current stigma that surrounds their roots and longstanding identity.