As the champions left the 4-H barn with their ribbons, photographer R.J. Kern turned his lens on the ones left behind.
The youngsters who stood with their arms around the sheep or goat they had raised, watching a year of hard work and hope end in one day of deep disappointment.
Kern wanted to see what they took away from the competition when someone else took home the prize.
His project, "The Unchosen Ones," celebrates the grit, grace and good humor of Minnesota 4-H'ers.
In the summer of 2016, Kern photographed 65 young people and their animals at 10 county fairs where they hadn't won a ribbon.
"Show me next year's champion," Kern prompted the youngsters, who faced the camera, chins up, heads high.
They already knew what some adults never learn. Sometimes you aren't chosen. Even when you work really hard. Even when you really wanted it.
And that's OK.
Their portraits — dignified, humane and deeply relatable — were chosen for the cover of National Geographic. They've hung on gallery walls. Next month, they'll be featured in Kern's new book, "The Unchosen Ones."
"The kids who come in fifth or sixth place, they're usually the ones who go on to do great things," Kern said in an interview from his Minneapolis studio, where he has been hand-binding collector's editions of his new book. "Because they realize, yeah, maybe I could have worked harder. Those lessons, they can apply directly."
In 2020, a year none of us would have chosen, Kern hit the road to visit the youngsters he first photographed in 2016.
This time, he brought a video camera.
"You win some, you lose some," Nick, a 4-H member from Otter Tail County, tells Kern in one of a series of videos posted at rjkern.com. "That's just how 4-H goes."
Kern reconnected with 50 of his original subjects. Between photo shoots, he asked them what they've learned and what they'd like to teach others.
"Give it your all and even if it doesn't go your way, it will be OK," said Anna, a 4-H'er from Blue Earth County.
They talked about hard work, responsibility, patience and compassion. They hope you remember that, win or lose, this is supposed to be fun.
"When I was showing chickens, I actually had a trip to the State Fair once," Shania, who now lives in Ramsey County, told Kern in one of the videos, balancing a small green parrot on one finger. "I was just so stressed about winning and getting there and doing everything right. And in the end, I didn't feel like I had enough fun, because I was too focused on winning instead of just enjoying the State Fair."
Those who were still in 4-H posed with their animals. In the book, you'll see their portraits side-by-side. Four years older, four years taller, still calmly navigating the joys and disappointments of this world.
Some moved on to new hobbies. They posed with their new passions — hockey sticks and bowling balls, puppies and ATVs.
Some aged out of 4-H and into a world where successes and setbacks rarely come color-coded with ribbons.
They're dealing with college. Pregnancies. The loss of the family farm. One spent a brief time homeless, sleeping rough under a bridge, still delighted by the memory of his picture hanging on the wall of an art gallery.
Chins up, heads high, The Unchosen Ones faced the camera again.