Johnathon Kelso is an Atlanta based photographer documenting life in the South. His past work has concentrated on displaying various expressions of Christianity throughout the region. Kelso’s work has been featured by The Oxford American, CNN, and Bloomberg Businessweek. Photographs from his series, I Want to Die A-Shouting, are part of a permanent collection housed at the Alabama State Archives in Montgomery, AL. Selected work from his latest project, As God is My Witness, will be on display as part of Slow Exposures 2016 in Zebulon, GA.
As God is My Witness
One month after his first son was born, Kelso attended a southern photography getaway in the Black Belt of Alabama. The question was asked, “What is a Southern image?” He chewed on it some, not knowing the exact answer, and decided he’d better find out for himself. He began photographing lone country roads, genteel Southerners, and familiar scenes of Jesus lovers. Was this what it meant to be a Southerner?
Kelso has always thought of himself as a Southerner. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, he has lived in Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia. He has a strong sense of belonging to the land and its culture. But as a photographer representing the South, Kelso wanted to dig into his own Southern identity a bit more. He wanted to know exactly what he was claiming when he called himself a “Southern artist.” Does he believe in the Southern trinity of Elvis, Jesus, and Robert E. Lee? Could he swear it, like Scarlett O’Hara did, with God as his witness?
Then, the unthinkable happened. Dylan Roof walked into a evening prayer service at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina and murdered nine church members before fleeing the scene. Almost instantly after his arrest, an image appeared online showing Roof posing with a handgun in front of a Confederate Battle Flag. Kelso felt an immediate pull from his Southernness, a sense of shame for the South’s broken past.
To look intently on the South, Kelso needed to look at the darkest part of Southern history to see if there was any truth or beauty he could abide with. He sought out the Sons of Confederate Veterans and those who still wave the rebel flag. He spent time with people stereotyped as racists, rednecks, country folk, and in some cases, those labeled as extremists. Kelso also spent time with authors, historians, and documentarians to level the playing field. Through some digging, he even discovered that his own great-great-great grandfather, William Kelso(e), fought for the CSA in the 19th Alabama Infantry, Company B.
As he photographed Confederate memorials and rallies across the Bible Belt, Kelso realized he was witnessing a dying culture. As God is My Witness is an attempt to document what remains of this version of the South today, not some glorified Old South of the past. Both as a Christian and as a photographer, Kelso felt it was his task to listen and practice empathy, to peer beyond the veil of America’s only “felt” history and accept it.
To view more of Johnathon’s work please visit his website.