Black life and portraiture at the heart of photographer’s work

"The Black Body" (2020) by Kendall Bessent. Courtesy of Kendall Bessent

Credit: Kendall Bessent

Credit: Kendall Bessent

Just 20 years old, Kendall Bessent has already created a fascinating body of work.

Emerging photographer Kendall Bessent, 20, is definitely a man who knows what he wants.

His father longed for him to play football, and American culture and stereotypes certainly reward the narrative of Black men devoting their lives to the gridiron. But at the tender age of 10, Bessent decisively walked off the practice field. “I never went back to playing football,” he laughs.

“I’m never going to do something that doesn’t make me happy.”

Bessent had the same kind of epiphany sitting in a pre-law classroom a year ago at Georgia State University when he realized with utter clarity “I do not want to do this. I do not care about law.” He went directly from that class to his advisor’s office and changed his major to photography, a longstanding interest since he was a teenager.

Atlanta-based photographer Kendall Bessent. Courtesy of Braylen Dion,

Credit: Kendall Bessent

Credit: Kendall Bessent

And that lifelong tendency — to go with his instincts — has been paying off lately for Bessent.

In July, Bessent was featured, along with 12 other 25-and-under photographers across the country in a photo series in The Washington Post. The feature was devoted to the cataclysmic events, from the coronavirus to the Black Lives Matter protests, that have shaped life for young Americans in 2020. Bessent’s portraits in The Washington Post — like most of his work, feature black subjects, shot outdoors — natural light being his preferred set-up. Those cinematic-feeling portraits revel in the texture of skin, and the suggestive sensation of sunlight and shadow on flesh. His photos — mostly of friends and family members — ooze moodiness, taking their cue from the self-possession and presence of his unique subjects.

The influence of fashion and fine art photography vie for Bessent’s attention. He’s inspired by the intimate portraits by New York photographer Deana Lawson; the fashion and civil rights documentary photography of Gordon Parks and the raw street photography of Jamel Shabazz — all photographers who have made Black portraiture the core of their work.

“The narrative for my people has been misconstrued by the media,” says Bessent. “So photography is a way for me to take control of that and show who we are in the purest form.”

Telling a different story of Black life is the focus of Bessent’s latest body of work, “The Family Portraits I Never Had,” which will be featured Sept. 17-20 at the Gallery by Wish in Little Five Points, along with the work of 10 other artists in a pop-up exhibition.

"Obum" (2020) by Kendall Bessent. Courtesy of Kendall Bessent

Credit: Kendall Bessent

Credit: Kendall Bessent

The series came out of a sadness Bessent was beginning to reflect on what he missed growing up as a child of divorce in Stone Mountain.

“It’s childhood trauma that I’m working through,” says Bessent.

“That’s the one thing that I never had the opportunity to do with my parents and siblings, was take a family portrait. And I started thinking about how many other families — especially in the Black community — deal with the same thing.”

These new family portraits are a way to reclaim some of the happiness Bessent felt he lost when his parents split when he was in middle school. Many of these new portraits were shot in his grandmother’s backyard on a lake in Conyers. It’s a happy place Bessent associates with holidays and family gatherings. “It’s one of the most peaceful places for me,” Bessent says.

In the portrait “Grandma” (2020) his 85-year-old grandmother Katie stands in a crisp white suit against a red brocade swath of fabric, her lush green yard visible beyond. “It was really important for me to capture these families in these intimate settings that meant a lot to them.”

"This is a portrait of my 85-year-old grandmother," says photographer Kendall Bessent of his photograph "Grandma" (2020). "She is the matriarch of our entire family, and one of the strongest women that I know." Courtesy of Kendall Bessent

Credit: Kendall Bessent

Credit: Kendall Bessent

That interest and confidence in showing the complexity of the Black experience is likely the result of having grown up his whole life in Atlanta, a city with Black role models like Shirley Franklin and Kasim Reed, people a Black kid like Bessent could look up to. “I’ve always known Atlanta as the Black mecca,” says Bessent.

The confidence those role models instilled in Bessent probably played a part in his decisiveness, too.

Photographer Kendall Bessent's portrait "A Mother's Love" (2020) of family members at his grandmother's home in Conyers, is part of his "The Family Portraits I Never Had" series that will be on view at the Gallery by Wish. Courtesy of Kendall Bessent

Credit: Kendall Bessent

Credit: Kendall Bessent

Bessent is about to make another dramatic change in his life, in part motivated by COVID-19 and the self-reflection it has inspired.

“I took a step back. What do I really want to do? I was like, I just want to move to New York.”

So this October, with his parents' blessing, Bessent sets off for New York City.

EXHIBIT

“The Give Back”

Sept. 17-20. By appointment only, free. The Gallery by Wish, 453 Moreland Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-880-0402, wishatlgallery.com