Kennedi Carter on Southern Roots and Her “Full Circle” Beyoncé Moment

A nine-part collage of photographs by Kennedi Carter
Photographs by Kennedi Carter. Collage by W Magazine.

Welcome to Ways of Seeing, an interview series that highlights emerging talents in the field of photography and film, working behind the camera. In this week’s edition, W Magazine’s Visuals Editor, Michael Beckert, speaks with photographer Kennedi Carter. Carter has photographed major fashion editorials, most recently Simone Biles for the cover of Glamour magazine, and, most notably, Beyoncé for the cover of British Vogue, making her the youngest cover photographer in the magazine’s history. Her personal work is influenced by her southern roots growing up in North Carolina, and below she discusses her latest project shot in collaboration with Google’s creator labs.

How did you get into photography?

I started photography back when I was in high school. Prior to that I was just doing a bunch of stuff: track, ice skating, and watercolor painting. My photography teacher was telling me how she was an assistant at Warner Bros., and she met all these different people, and I just thought it was really interesting. I was taking the course, and I thought it would be an easy A, but I actually had to apply myself and found it to be challenging. I ended up liking photography a lot and I eventually went to college for it, but then left because I just didn’t like the college. During my two gap years I started taking on assignments that would come to North Carolina, and in the second gap year I ended up getting my British Vogue cover with Beyoncé, so that’s pretty much how it went.

Do you still talk to your high school art teacher? What did she say about the Beyoncé cover?

Yeah, we still talk. We’ll DM one another, and message back and forth. Just a month ago I was on a Zoom call with her. She was really excited about the Beyoncé cover, and it was sort of a full circle moment because she had met her way back when she was at Warner Bros.

What was it like working with Beyoncé? How did you feel that day waking up and going to set?

She was great. It was a two day shoot, and on the first day we shot 17 looks, and we shot eight the next day. She was really nice, and she made it easy, so it was cool.

I really admire your body of work because it’s obvious that you’re not afraid to try new things. Looking at your British Vogue cover compared to the Glamour cover you just shot with Simon Biles, for example, they’re shot in such different aesthetic universes. How do you feel about pushing your style in different directions?

I think it just keeps it interesting. Sometimes I feel like my work doesn’t really look the same. There are a ton of images I’ve made where it doesn’t feel like me. I’m still in the process of figuring out what my editorial voice is, and I think a lot of my peers have had a bit more time to figure out who they are, and let it marinate. They know who they are and what they want to make. I’m slowly getting there, so we’ll see. It can be really daunting to feel like you have to have everything together, but I’m always honest with editors. You’ll always get something from me, it’s gonna be cute no matter what.

Photograph by Kennedi Carter, created in partnership with Google’s Creator Labs. Image shot using a Google Pixel.

Photograph by Kennedi Carter, created in partnership with Google’s Creator Labs. Image shot using a Google Pixel.

Can you tell me a bit about your project with Google’s Creator Labs?

This year, the root of what Google wanted all of our projects to be about, was this idea of progress and what progress looks like to artists. I think progress, for an artist, is about making art that highlights a subject matter that should be highlighted in the world already, or making that subject seen if it isn’t already seen in the world. There was a time when I was looking for art that surrounded Black lesbians: poetry, romance novels, imagery, anything that pertained to that subject. I couldn’t find it anywhere. So I thought it would be interesting to make this project about this couple that I know, whose love I really admire. I thought that their love was extremely beautiful and I was just wanting to capture that.

One of my favorite photographs by you is this one from a while back. It features a person, shot from behind, with rainbow wings. What’s the story behind this image?

I was at Pride in 2017, and I saw this person walking by me with their friend, and I asked to take their picture. I ended up losing the film negative. I was very disorganized at the time, and it rolled behind my bed. [Laughs.] I was packing up to go to school at one point, and I found it, had it processed, and there it was!

Photograph by Kennedi Carter.

How did growing up in North Carolina influence your work?

North Carolina has influenced me a great deal. My maternal side of my family is from Louisiana and Texas—so I’m in Texas a lot. I’m really a child of the south, so I’ve seen a lot of things out here. The food, the agriculture, the religion out here, it has all influenced me.

Do you have any dream collaborators or subjects you’d like to work with?

I love women rappers, Jocelyn Hernandez, and Nicki Minaj. Rihanna, of course. I want more strange projects, like body projects. I’d like to photograph bodybuilders.

What about photographers? Whose work have you been looking at lately?

I’ve been buying a bunch of photography books. Deana Lawson is a favorite of mine, I’d cry if I ever met her. I love Dawoud Bey, he’s brilliant.

Would you want to release a book at some point?

Of course. I always say releasing a photobook is like an album, and a zine is a mixtape. I want to release one but it’s really just about time and funding honestly.

How do you look at your work? Every photographer I know is anxiously scrolling through their Instagram every day critiquing their own work. What do you do?

I’m going to start printing my work out and looking at it on paper. Typically, I’ll just keep opening the file and staring at it that way. I want to create a better website—mine definitely needs something, I’m not sure what, but it needs to be better. Right now, it’s not stank enough. When I look at my Instagram, there’s only so much you can get about me or my work. Also, when I release a book one day, I don’t want the book to feature a bunch of pictures that people have already seen on my Instagram. When I’m trying to re-experience my work, I need to switch it up by printing it out and pinning it to a wall.

Is there a project or accomplishment so far as an artist that you’re most proud of?

I’d have to say it’s the British Vogue cover. I’m waiting on the project that makes me feel like I’ve surpassed that, but in the grand scheme of my career that project set me on the path that’s really confirmed that I’m meant to be making the work that I’m making. I’m working on making more work that I’m proud of—it’ll take time and I’m not rushing it.