On Hair (& Women) is an ongoing series by Lebanese photographer, based in Paris, Clara Abi Nader. Started in 2014 till present the project studies women and their relationship to hair by questioning social norms about femininity, hair loss due to sickness and medical treatments, cultural backgrounds, gender and sexual orientation. All Shot on film 35mm and 120.
It was the month of December 2014, I was walking around Place Victor Hugo in Paris, when I saw this lady and I instantly decided to follow her until I could take her portrait. We went around the square, took a slight right, I noticed a construction site, and as quickly as I could, I took my picture before it was too late. So began my obsession around women and their hair.
As a child, I was shy. I had long hair, behind which I hid my face. As a teenager, I cut them very short, blindly copying what my older sister did, and I hated it. I recall one time, I was performing at a piano recital, the first thing my brother told me after it was done was “Someone called you a guy wearing a dress”.
Today, I love my hair: it is a part of me I cannot think of losing, it empowers me, it dresses me, it expresses what I feel in every moment of my life.
I found myself wandering on the Parisian streets, looking around whenever I cross a woman’s path and check her hairdo. Each one has its spirit, its identity. It tells a lot about the person without even revealing her face. In our societies where women often succumb to cosmetic surgery, I try to find a common bond to all of us, the hair, what does it represent? This series started in Paris because I am based there. There is surely a cultural and social effect due to the city itself. The people photographed on the street are not necessarily French nor Parisian. Anonymity at the time of shooting is crucial. There is in this gesture, a certain symbiosis between my act and my subject.
In parallel with these street photos, I am pursuing this study by interviewing other candidates, each with a story to tell, this time taken and meeting in their intimate space. The work is a kind of introspection, another way to understand the woman of today: what makes us a woman? How do we cope with norms within a society when we are forced to lose one of our feminine traits? Can we look different and be accepted? What cultural background does hair add up to our identity? Does it give away about who we are, where we come from? What about age, are we all welcoming our white hairs? Is long or short hair a sign of our gender and sexual orientation?
Through these questions and the people I will keep photographing my hope is to break some of these conventional norms that affect us all, male or female, where most of the time we end up stuck, not knowing who we are, just because we don’t fit in.”
Suffering from trichotillomania for almost fifteen years now, Mathilde has been tearing her hair often when needed to overcome her emotions. This has led her to shave her hair and wear a scarf all the time, in her every day life, in order to cover up her bald spots. She had the courage to face me without her scarf and let me photograph her as she is.
At the age of 17, Nathalie had alopecia, a disease that causes sudden hair loss. Growing up in a country (Lebanon) where beauty and cosmetic surgery go along, losing all of her hair was not an easy thing to deal with, that added to her sexual orientation as well.
Curly hair in Algeria is badly seen, all girls are supposed to straighten their curls in order to look beautiful and presentable. Leila, loves her curls and she is a fervent street performer that has led the way in her country, hoping that this will bring change in the Algerian society.
Laurène has had to deal with her curly hair not really knowing what to do with it. Due to an eczema issue running in the family, she has to constantly use a specific shampoo in order to treat it, a shampoo that she wishes she didn’t have to use as it is not very ecological nor natural.
Due a thyroid treatment, Emeline has lost all of her hair. Her main wish today is to be able to get her eyebrows tattooed as she draws them herself every morning. She is in a constant battle against peoples judgments regarding her appearance as she struggles to find work.
It was never about her hair, it was more about covering up her body with her silky hair. Julia grew up with a little complex with her ears, her hands, her height, all being too big, too present, she simply wanted to not stand out in the crowd.
Vania Siempre: (Salvadore/France)
Vania Siempre is the character she embodies, and represented that evening, the great Cuban singer Celia Cruz.
“The long and dense hair tells a story of abundance, fertility and celebration, which shows a strong woman. It is freedom more than strength that my hair refers to, either because I let them down during the performance, or because I reveal the wavy hair under a wig capped more strictly.”
Melissa: (Mexico/ France)
Latino haircuts refer to Mexican popular culture of telenovelas with strong curved fringes and an impressive volume. It is a way of teasing someone but ultimately also an elitist comment to say “You had a real Latina cut” her parents once told her.
Coming from an upper class family and having a French mother, Melissa had to deal with these cultural and social differences. Hair and styling becomes then a strong reference of where and how you are brought up, often referring to your social class.
Her mother always used to braid her long black hair on the sides. Catalina hated it. Aged 14, she cut it short and asked to have permanent curls, her father almost didn’t recognise her. In 2007, she went through chemotherapy to cure breast cancer which caused her losing all of her hair. She relapsed in 2014 and again endured the same loss. Today she remains strong and luckily, her hair keeps growing no matter what.
“You have to suffer to be beautiful” her mother used to say. Her hair has been and still is a reflection of her inner state, the receptacle of her anxieties and nervous twitches. For years she hid her face and eyes behind her hair which ironically made her cross-eyed.
Her hair used to be her favorite way of dressing herself up. She did it all, colouring, cutting, shaping and re-cutting all over again until one day aged 17, she had to deal with an inexplicable disorder with her mental and physical balance which led her to lose her appetite but also her hair. Her body image was destroyed and having her photograph taken was a torture. She accepted to take part in my project as part of a healing process she’s been doing by herself.