Hair has long been revered as a source of power aesthetically, spiritually, and even politically. Societies throughout history have deeply rooted cultural connections and connotations associated with hair—especially female hair. Although the beauty and fashion industry have a stronghold on the “hair conversation,” artists have considerable influence in affecting change and setting new industry standards.
When it comes to the experience of black women and girls in the United States, the “hair topic” is rife with undeniable political and social implications, and still proves to be a contentious topic. Just earlier this year, the choice of wearing box braids, for instance, landed two girls in detention for two weeks at their Boston charter school. They were also denied admittance to prom and kicked off their sports teams. But this pressure to conform to ‘white standards’ subverts the beauty, radiance, and power of black hair—whether worn in braids, dreads, cornrowed, twisted, straightened, or curly.
To highlight and celebrate the beauty of black girls’ hair—in any and all iterations and styles—Culture Trip spoke to Kahran Bethencourt, Atlanta-based photographer and co-owner of CreativeSoul Photography, about her new stunning new portrait series: Afro Art.
Culture Trip: When did you first begin this series?
Kahran Bethencourt: [My husband and I] started it this summer and we’ve been shooting it in various cities across the United States—Atlanta, New York, L.A., and Dallas. We focus on “natural haired kids,” and we’re used to incorporating locations and props with our shoots.
CT: What inspired you to do this traveling portrait series around the United States?
KB: Last year, we photographed kids from around the world and incorporated their style and culture. This year, we wanted to stretch our creativity a little bit and do a portrait series where we focus on hair styles and the versatility of Afro hair. We wanted to provide an inspiration for girls for them to see that, number one their hair is beautiful, and number two they’re able to do so many different things to it.
CT: How did the various cities influence the styles?
KB: We did a different theme for each city. The hair styles weren’t based on time periods, per se, but we came up with different concepts for each location that we went to. So we did the baroque style, the ice queen, steampunk, and [other looks].
CT: The hairstyles are so architectural in some images—they’re really spectacular. But why the Baroque period specifically?
KB: I’ve always been fascinated by the Baroque period, especially the fashion. You don’t see a lot of diverse faces in the imagery from that era. I always like incorporating contrast into the work that we do, so I thought it would be cool to contrast that whole era with the more modern models, with these really unique Afro hair styles.
CT: Annie Leibovitz wrote in an interview last year that “women need to be visualized“. How do you think these photographs are contributing to the visualization (or re-visualization) of women—particularly women of color—in the United States?
KB: I think that’s really a motivation behind a lot of what we do. When we started this [project] there wasn’t a lot of representation of girls of color in the industry. We really wanted to inspire and help motivate them so that they feel they are represented, and that they see themselves in creative ways they had never imagined before.
CT: What’s the response been like from girls?
KB: From what I can tell so far, I feel like a lot of girls have said they’re inspired by the work we’re doing and feel more confident to rock their natural hair.
CT: How are you selecting the subjects for the portraits?
KB: These were regular models, some of them we’ve known already, but parents were able to sign up in their different cities. A lot of the kids had never seen certain hair styles before, so it was an experience for them. They did a session and we got them all dressed up and did their hair and styled everything on set for the concept we had.
CT: After the photos were edited and you showed them to the girls, did you get a chance to see their reaction or talk to them about the photographs and the final product?
KB: I didn’t get to see their reactions because many of them are in different states. But the feedback from the parents was that they loved seeing themselves in the pictures. One of the girls wanted to rock her hair home! They were amazed by the transformation.
Now, a lot of them are just really excited to see their images being shared. I don’t think any of them had expected that part of it. It’s been a big surprise for all of them to see something that they just thought was going to be a photoshoot turn into something much bigger.
CT: How many looks and themes have you experimented with over the course of the series?
KB: We’ve done about six or so now—steampunk, a queen series, a pearl series, the baroque-era, and others. We’re going a holiday-themed one soon, and a few more into next year.
CT: I’ve been thinking a lot about how, as artists or writers, we have this position to engage in certain social and political discussions that can positively impact others—particularly about the female body. And how hair is also a political statement in that it has so many social connotations attached to it, particularly for women of color in the U.S. So with that in mind, what do you think artists and writers can do to further address these kinds of issues?
KB: For me, [as an artist] that’s the way I’m able to speak. We speak through our work. We hope that by showing these images it normalizes it a bit more.
There was a mother asking her daughter if she ever gets teased for her hair, and she said “That was back in your day, Mom!”. So for her, the child felt like it was very normal to wear her hair natural. We’re hoping that as more of these images are out there, it will start normalizing [natural hair] even more.