Ariel Hairston sat down with Kendall Bessent, rising professional photographer and the mastermind behind A Love Letter To Atlanta to discuss the impetus of the ongoing collaboration between him and Straight To Tell. When we first met Kendall two years ago, he was a pre-law student at Georgia State University whose photography career was just budding.
Now, Kendall is a notable NYC photographer whose portfolio contains work with Wieden + Kennedy, Teen Vogue, Netflix, and The New York Times. To top it off, he recently landed a position on Forbes 30 Under 30.
Ariel and Kendall had a great conversation about living in New York, loving his hometown, and why A Love Letter To Atlanta means so much to him.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ariel: First of all, congrats on your recent success.
Kendall: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Thank you.
Ariel: It seems like everything has blown up for you so fast.
Kendall: I feel like it’s seen that way, but I feel like I’m still working towards what I want to be. But I guess to other people it seems like it didn’t take that long, but for me, I am tired. But yeah, I’ve definitely grown a lot since the last time I was actually there in person with y’all. But just my work and just everything that I’ve accomplished. Like [in 2020], I was like, this is crazy. I’ve never had that many opportunities in one year.
Ariel: Yeah! And now you’re living in NYC.
Kendall: Honestly, at the beginning of  when we did the Big Boi video, if you would have told me later that year I would have been moving to New York City, I would have looked at you like you was crazy. I was like, no. I never would have thought I would be moving to New York. Yeah, that fast, by myself. I never would have thought that.
Ariel: That’s amazing. I bet it feels a lot different from Atlanta.
Kendall: Yes. It’s crazy how expensive it is in some parts. Manhattan is really expensive. Just basic necessities, like grocery and food, it’s expensive. Because when I come to Atlanta, you kind of forget how things should cost. There is no reason I should be spending $4 on a thing of juice. That makes no sense. But what I do with groceries, I do Instacart and they go to Harlem and bring my groceries down. Because it’s like food deserts here.
Ariel: Now, we’re really here to talk about Atlanta. Can you tell me about the birth of your project, A Love Letter To Atlanta?
Kendall: A Love Letter to Atlanta came about, honestly, it was like a… not a spur of the moment idea… I was in Atlanta over the holiday break and Trevor [Kane], he reached out to me. He was basically like, do you want to create something? And have it centered around you? And I knew I wanted to create something, but I was hesitant to have it centered around me because I’ve never put myself at the forefront of anything I created. So I thought why don’t I just highlight up and coming Black photographers that are in Atlanta, who are also my friends?
In the course of a week, I put the whole project together and shot it. And I reached out to seven other photographers, and I set it up and we shot it at the [Straight To Tell] studio. And I had the idea of asking them basically how the city of Atlanta has influenced their work, and how they go hand in hand with each other. And then, I knew I wanted to have quotes from them blown up and just pasted, kind of like guerrilla style, around the city of Atlanta. Just to get their name out there, have more people have their eyes on them and things like that.
I kind of had tunnel vision when I was creating the project and just coming up with everything.I thought of one idea and then it led to another idea and then it just dominoed and dominoed. And then when I came together with you all, I had the idea of just taking it bigger. So, that’s where the idea of basically pitching it to a bigger brand [came from], which will come down the line. I don’t know if I want to speak on that right here.
Ariel: That’s amazing. Why do you feel it’s so important to showcase these Atlanta artists?
Kendall: That’s important because in the photography industry, a lot of people are just now focusing on the artists in Atlanta, but we’ve been here the whole time. So, I wanted to use my platform, and also my expertise in it, to bring these voices, who I feel should be heard, to the forefront. And I wanted to basically… The idea of just pasting them up around the city is just immortalizing them and their self and their form. So I just wanted to show, this is them, this is their art. But also pay homage to the city of Atlanta because even if we aren’t from here, it’s a city that has played a big part in all of our work.
Ariel: You’re from Atlanta, right?
Kendall: I am from Atlanta, yeah. Stone Mountain.
Ariel: What was it like for you growing up in Atlanta?
Kendall: Oh my god. I always say growing up in Atlanta, I feel like you have a different experience as an African-American than growing up in any other city. And in some ways that could be bad or good, because you can be naive to certain things. But ever since I was a kid, Atlanta, as long as I’ve been alive, has always been known as the Black Mecca. So growing up, I would always see Black professionals, Black lawyers, Black doctors, our Mayor was Black. Just Black people in these high ranking places: in politics, or in the entertainment industry, or teachers.
All through elementary school I had Black teachers; I thought that was common. When I had my first white teacher, I was like, oh wow. But when I spoke to people from other cities who grew up in other places, they didn’t really have that same experience. So, I feel like really growing up in Atlanta just taught me the sky is the limit. I never doubted what I could accomplish. And I feel like Atlanta played a big part in all of that because I’ve always been surrounded by successful Black people.
Ariel: As an Atlanta native myself, I definitely agree with everything you said. But I also feel like Atlanta has changed a lot. What do you think?
Kendall: Yeah. So, I feel like definitely since the pandemic, Atlanta has changed a lot, and I don’t think it necessarily has changed in a good way. It has changed in a good way, but I feel like the bad has overshadowed the good. And I feel like that goes back to Atlanta being one of the only cities that was open during the pandemic. So, with all these new people coming to Atlanta, it has shifted our culture. I was reading the other day, the crime rate has skyrocketed in Atlanta. And I’m like, it has never been like this before. I’ve never felt not safe going to certain places in Atlanta, but now I think twice, do I want to go to this place? Even if it’s daylight or even just riding on the expressway.
It kind of made me sad because it’s changing. But the good ways how it has changed, what I will say, it’s a lot more opportunities. AndAtlanta, it’s becoming… I mean, it’s already been a major city, but it’s growing and growing and growing and growing. So yeah, I guess it comes with the bad and the good of it being Atlanta.
Ariel: I completely agree with you. But a lot of the growth has come from an increase in white people migrating to the city.
Kendall: Yeah. Right. That’s not even a thing. You have Ponce City Market. And that’s also another thing. Atlanta has been gentrified so much since I’ve been a kid. I did a project on Atlanta when I was in college, and Atlanta was the first city in the nation to get rid of public housing.
Ariel: Yes. Atlanta was the first city to have public housing, and the first city to get rid of it.
Kendall: Yeah. But that happened right before the 1996 Olympics. Where Centennial Olympic Park is today, it used to be called Techwood Projects. And they tore down the projects to build this. It’s a beautiful park, but I feel like you can’t displace all these people. You basically just displaced all these lower income families to build. Yes, it’s a beautiful park, but you can’t do this and then not have somewhere for them to go. You know what I mean?
Kendall: Gentrification has definitely took over Atlanta at this point. And even now more so, gentrification is being taken over by super gentrification, where the ultra wealthy is gentrifying the already gentrified areas. So you have places like Kirkwood and Edgewood where you have million dollar houses next to a lower income, elderly Black woman who can barely afford to pay her property taxes because the city is rising them so that they can come in and buy this land and gentrify the area even more. Atlanta has changed since I’ve been a kid. Because I remember as a kid going to Centennial Olympic Park, going to Underground Atlanta, when it was popping, going to Glenwood Flea Market. Just going to all these places where now it’s like, where do you go? Ponce City Market, Atlantic Station? You know?
Ariel: Right. I’m glad Atlanta is growing, but it’s come at a huge cost, and Black people have had to pay it. But there’s still a lot to love about this city.
Kendall: Right. Atlanta is always going to be home to me no matter where I move in the world, in my life or my career, ultimately I’m going to always come back and settle in Atlanta. A lot of the artists on this project feel like that as well. But Atlanta is really just a one of a kind city. I don’t think you can get the same feeling that you get in Atlanta anywhere else. I’m in New York, and yes, it’s New York. Yes, it’s this amazing city with all these opportunities. But it’s not Atlanta.
It’s the small things. I remember coming home after I hadn’t been home for four months, and I was driving through Atlanta and I was so excited to see trees. I was like, oh my God, it’s trees. It was almost like I was a little kid. I was like, it’s trees. I was so happy just to see trees. And yeah, Atlanta is just a magical, unique city. I don’t think it’s words to explain it. I feel like it’s just more so fulfilling. It’s the southern hospitality. It’s the people, it’s the culture, it’s the music. It’s just the way Atlanta makes you feel. It’s such a peaceful place to be, to me.
Ariel: Wow. You’ve painted such a beautiful picture of the city we both call home. I would love to learn more about the Atlanta artists you’ve featured in your love letter.
Kendall: Yeah. So, we have seven artists, eight including myself. To start off, you have Braylen Dion. He’s an amazing photographer out of Atlanta. And his work is really centered around the Black perspective and Black life in general.
Then we have Logan Lynette, who’s an amazing photographer and amazing director. Logan is definitely going to be one of the biggest directors in the world. Their work is amazing. And I can’t wait for everyone to see Logan’s work because when they showed me their short film, I almost came to tears. It was so beautiful.
Then we have Jalen Amir, who’s an amazing photographer as well. Jalen experiments more so with surrealism and Black life as well, but also have a lot of biblical stories in their work as well.
I’m going to keep saying all of them are amazing because literally their work is amazing.
Talecia, [they’re] an amazing photographer from Atlanta. We went to Georgia State together, so that’s how we connected, and [their] work is beautiful. And then you have Nia, who also went to Georgia State with me and her work is really centered around Black alternative life. So, just the quote-unquote “weirdos,” as people would call them. But she basically just takes that and just documents and showcases them, which is beautiful to see, because I feel like you really don’t see a lot of Black alternative kids in the forefront. You know what I mean? Or just alternative people in general. And then… Hold on, I got to bring up everyone.
Then you have Nedu, who’s also another photographer. He really just deals with domestic Black life and just documenting that. Yeah, just documenting the Black experience in his work.
Who else? Ryder. I’m pretty sure everyone has heard of Ryder. She’s also an amazing photographer. All of our work is centered around Black life, but we all have a unique approach to it and how we document and just show it. So Ryder is another one whose work is unique. You can see it. If you see one of her pictures, you know she took it.
And then you have me. My work is of course centered around Black life and just showing the beauty of our community and our culture. And ultimately my work just seems to instill confidence and self-love in my people. And I think that’s everyone. I believe that’s everyone.
Ariel: They all sound so talented. But there are so many incredibly talented Black photographers that come out of Atlanta. Why did you choose these seven in particular?
Kendall: It all goes back to the creative community in Atlanta. We have a really small, but very close-knit, creative community in Atlanta, with designers, photographers, videographers, things like that. we’re all peers in that space, but what really made those artists stand out to me was I know them personally, and I’ve actually built friendships and relationships with these people. It was really important for me to highlight them because they are some of my very close friends. And ultimately, what I want to do with A Love Letter to Atlanta is expand it to even more artists and go around to different cities and just highlight, or just create this institution of a love letter to this city, a love letter to that city, where you can just highlight different artists in your city. But really, what attracted me to these artists was just my personal relationships and friendships with them.
Ariel: Besides friendship, what do you and these artists have in common? What sets you apart?
Kendall: All of our work, it’s all centered around the Black experience and Black life in general, whether that’s Black life in Atlanta or honestly, around the world. But although we all have that in common, what stands out is how we approach it and how we showcase it in different ways. We all have our own style. And it’s crazy because I was talking with Braylen about this. We shoot almost the same thing, but it’s so different in many ways. It’s beautiful.
Ariel: Why is it so important to document Black life through your work?
Kendall: It’s so important to me because in traditional media, especially mainstream media, whenever I seen a Black family, it was never really in the best light. So I’m like, what’s the best way to just showcase my people if I do it? I feel like that’s the purest form and the purest way to just showcase my culture. Granted, no offense towards white people who document Black life, but it’s a different eye that we have when we document our own culture, if that makes sense. We just pick up on different things and there’s just different things that I feel like we can relate to that someone else who’s from outside of our culture can’t relate to. So what’s the best way to show my culture from my perspective? I’m a young, Black male. That’s the purest way to show it.
I was thinking about this the other day. A lot of my work has subliminal messages in it, about myself or my life. And all of that goes back to me just being a young Black male growing up in America, trying to find myself, trying to find the person that I am. And there’s many ways to show that and document that, but I choose to document the good about it, the beautiful part of being Black in America, and just loving my people, loving where I come from, and just loving myself. That’s why my work seeks to instill self-love and confidence in people. Like I said, there’s many ways to show, many perspectives you can show that from. But what I choose to do is just show the best side of it. Because I feel like the bad side of being Black in America has been shown so many times, it’s like, okay, we get it.
Ariel: Exactly. Like a lot of street photography by white artists captures Black homelessness and poverty.
Kendall: Right… Just going to the hood and just documenting Black people in the hood. I get it, but that’s corny. You’re documenting it from a perspective of, oh these people are in the hood and they’re struggling. But I’ll document it from the perspective of like, yes, this is their circumstances, but there’s beauty within all of this. There’s love and community and sacrifice in all of this that I see from my perspective that they might not see.
Ariel: That’s beautiful. And your work has landed you photoshoots with Teen Vogue.
Kendall: Oh my god. So, Teen Vogue came about… So, that was actually a blessing from God.I always wanted to shoot for Teen Vogue. And I had reached out to the entertainment director, her name was Dani, and I had emailed her — just introducing myself. Hi, I’m Kendall, this is my portfolio. I’ve always been a long admirer of Teen Vogue, I would love to shoot with you one day. Just keep me in mind for any project. So she emailed me back and she’s like, Hey Kendall, I love your work, basically. But she was like, I’m not the person that you would email for this. So she referred me to someone else, I believe it was Emily who was the Creative Director for Teen Vogue.
I just introduced myself to Emily, but a week later I was at my friend’s shop up here in Brooklyn, and my friend, she does everyone’s hair. She’s a braider. I was in the shop one day and I was having a conversation with her and her client. And when she got done doing her client’s hair, she was like, oh yeah, let me introduce y’all. She was like, this is Dani, she works for Teen Vogue. And I was like, wait, I’m Kendall. I emailed you the other day. It was the biggest coincidence ever. And basically Dani took my information, and then first what she did, she set up a personal shoot for me to do for her. And then they let me do an assignment in New York. But then when I came to Atlanta, that’s when I got the big job. And they basically was like, would you like to photograph Antonia Gentry and China Anne McClain for Teen Vogue? And I was like, of course. So yeah, that’s how that job came about.
Ariel: That had to feel life changing.
Kendall: Yeah. It did. That was an accomplishment of mine. Next is the cover.
Ariel: Were the photos in print?
Kendall: I don’t think it was in print. I think it was only digital, but next is definitely the cover.
Our second installment, A Love Letter to Southwest Atlanta, featured Black-owned small business owners in the West End, and was funded by Elevate Atlanta. If you want to pitch us an installment, or hire us for your projects, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article Photographer: Trevor May
Editorial Designer: Lauren Bowers
Interviewer: Ariel Hairston
Producer, Editor: Naomi Ergun
Creative Director: Trevor Kane