When photography and martial arts collide

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R.J. Kern wears many hats. He’s an award-winning wedding photographer, a fine arts photographer and a taekwondo instructor.

R.J. Kern is a wedding and fine art photographer based in Minneapolis.

R.J. Kern is a wedding and fine art photographer based in Minneapolis.

“Having the balance between different jobs helps me. If there’s a creative problem I’m struggling with, having other work keeps me productive, keeps the income stream coming through so I’m not just sitting back and twiddling my fingers.”

In his commercial wedding work, he says he is fully focused on his clients’ desires, using a photo-journalistic approach for candid shots plus formal portraiture for traditional photos. “I like to focus on the small details which are symbolic at such an important event,” Kern said from his home in Minneapolis.

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For four years he’s been retracing his ancestral heritage through Norway, Iceland and Ireland shooting a series that he calls “Divine Animals: The Bovidae.”

“A big part of this project is spending time in the environment where my ancestors were, trying to capture that sense of place. But I’m also inspired by European paintings from the 1850’s”

"Divine Animals: The Bovidae."  Photo by R.J. Kern.

“Divine Animals: The Bovidae.” Photo by R.J. Kern.

He recently received a grant from the Minnesota state arts board to shoot 4-H exhibitors and their animals at county fairs from across the state. But instead of shooting the winners, he shoots the animals that come in last place. He calls the project, “The Unchosen Ones.”

“I’ve started to see these fairs as breeding shows that have become almost like beauty contests. The animals are judged on very superficial traits. But I also wanted to document the sense of pride that these kids have in their heritage of raising animals. In this era when so many family farms are being lost to corporate enterprises, I think it’s important to document these county fairs.”

His “Unchosen Ones” project will be featured in a solo exhibition at a gallery in Brainerd in February.

"The Unchosen Ones."  Photo by R.J. Kern.

“The Unchosen Ones.” Photo by R.J. Kern.

When not shooting weddings or animal portraits, R.J. teaches taekwondo at Lakes Martial Arts. He earned his black belt in 2002 and became an instructor three years later.

“My goal is teaching life skills through martial arts. And if they learn to kick and punch, great.”

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Having such a broad range of career pursuits can be challenging. Kern says of his 12 hour days that he has to “work smart, not just hard.” He closes his martial arts studio during the busy summer wedding season and fits the fine arts work in wherever he can. But he says he thinks the seemingly disparate careers actually complement each other.

“They’re very different but they each help me be better at the other activity.”


Video was produced and edited by Maria Bartholdi. This story original aired on “MN Original”, a PBS award-winning weekly arts series celebrating Minnesota’s creative community. “MN Original” is produced by Twin Cities PBS (TPT). Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.

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