Hair extensions interested me greatly. The thought of someone willing to have another person’s hair attached to their head and having no idea of the origin of that hair, the circumstance from which it was taken. My idea was to make people think what their pursuit of beauty meant to the people from which it had come. I’d seen that there hadn’t been much done on the subject, especially in Ukraine. I aligned this search with my artist’s residency that I’d arranged in Kiev.
I headed to Kiev to take up my residency at Izolatysia, an Art Foundation in the city. I began asking about the hair industry, something that nobody seemed to know anything about. Walking the streets I noticed that although large-scale advertising was rare, there were many smaller posters with tear-off telephone numbers. I had to work out what the word for HAIR was in Ukrainian with cyrillic characters. It became a search!
In the mean time I’d arranged to meet a hair dealer called Vijay, who takes hair to New York. Selling it to orthodox jewish people for wigs and high end New York wig makers. We met for dinner and I tried to get some advice on the industry and maybe some contacts. I was told that my project would be nearly impossible, he’d never met any of the women that sold their hair. The conversation went on that he’d heard about hair being cut in prisons and even from dead women that had no family. My project had just taken an unexpectedly dark turn.
I managed to contact a couple of people that cut hair in Kiev. Communication with them was carried out via Google Translate, but I eventually arranged to meet Tatiana. She’d been cutting hair from women for 11 years and she exports some of it but also fits it as hair exten- sions in the City. She was very open to me, freely giving an interview and also showing me many ponytails of hair that I photographed. It was a relief to finally start the project!
Whilst in Ukraine an acquaintance that I’d made invited me to Kharkiv to photograph architecture in the city. One of the contacts that the exporter gave me was based in the city. I managed to track him down, Yevgeny. He ran a salon in the outskirts of the town. His sa- lon was based in a shopping centre and he kindly let me interview him and photograph. He then asked me to the back of his salon where Anna was fitting extensions to another woman named Anna. I asked if I could photograph them and I was allowed. I didn’t expect to get photos of a recipient of the hair but it was a great bonus to the project and makes an interesting comparison to where it comes from.
Whilst I was coming home to my accommodation I bumped into a guy called Alexanader who asked if I needed help opening my beer bottle. It turned out he’d be my next fixer! We talked about where the hair would come from and I mentioned that there could be a possibility that we might find it in prisons. He said that he’d been in prison himself, for running adrugs gang and breaking in to a policeman’s home to take back money that was owed to him. He seemed like the perfect person to go with to an all women prison. We headed to Chernihiv, 2 and a half hours north of Kiev. Having been given permission to attend a meeting with the prison chief 2 hours before the meeting. I hired the car and drove as fast as I could to the meeting. I explained completely to my fixer the complexity of my project. We were welcomed into the prison, I don’t think they get many visitors. We spent ten minutes in the offices to be told we need permission to enter the prison from Kiev, where we’d just come from. The head guard said she’d ask the inmates whether they’d like to be part of the project, I never heard back. This set a bit of a tone for the project!
Eventually, through friends of friends, I managed to find a woman that was selling her hair. She’d advertised on a Craiglist / Gumtree style website. And I’d managed to connect her to one of the hair sellers that I’d contacted through the street adverts. I arranged to meet her at a friend’s flat where I took portraits of her before and then the hair dealer arrived. He meas- ured out the long hair after putting it into 4 bunches. Then started hacking at the hair, he admitted he wasn’t a hairdresser. He’d been a guy that was putting up the street adverts for someone else. Then he realised that he could put his own number on the posters and col- lect the hair himself, so he did. He bought the hair from the woman for 1700 hryvnia, about $65. When he’d gone I photographed the woman again in exactly the same positions that I’d photographed her with long hair, then I interviewed her. She was upset, it was a traumatic experience for her. She’d mentioned to her boyfriend that she might cut her hair shorter, so he’d suggested that she sell it.
At the end of my time in Kiev I met the dealer again that takes hair to New York. I’d been contacting him throughout my stay and managed to ask him if I could take photos of him and interview him. I went to his home and we chatted about the merits of living in New York and London versus Kiev. We got on to the hair industry and I interviewed him and took photos. By this point I’d managed to photograph the whole process of the hair industry in Kiev. Luckily I hadn’t gone as dark as I could’ve done and it seemed that this trade was like any other. It wasn’t as oppressive or as exploitational as i thought it might be, but no matter how much each person said it was about beauty, it was about money. What I’d aimed to do was make people think about the beauty that they were striving for and where that beauty might have come from.