Amidst a chaos of uncollected trash, acrid fumes and the vacant lots of Port-au-Prince, some still strewn with six-year-old earthquake rubble, the visitor to Haiti cannot help but be struck by the endless variety and array of hand-painted signage that enlivens the landscape, jewels twinkling on the walls of an otherwise post-apocalyptic tropical catastrophe nearly devoid of public services and infrastructural support for its constantly burgeoning population. Everywhere giant, perfectly rendered images of iconic international celebrities like Rihanna and Lionel Messi share wall-space with local musicians like Phantom, or well-coiffed anonymous faces meticulously copied from bottles of relaxer, pomade or dye treatments.
A few years ago, I started photographing these signs, particularly the massive heads painted on the exterior walls of the ubiquitous barbershops and hair salons of the capital. Just as in the inner-city of the United States, haircair outfits are everywhere in Haiti. They represent, to me, the fundamental democratic unit of small business. Demand is inexaustible; the required technological and economic investment to open a shop is minimal; the clientele are local, and respond to the quality of the social experience they are offered as well as to the skills of the barber. Barbershops are a hyperlocal meritocracy in a landscape of patronage, corruption and constantly thwarted access to opportunity and advancement.
Taking pictures of these extravagant and colorful advertisements for a collective, reimagined Haitian identity was a chance to accentuate the positive, a private, personal way to counteract the media’s relentless narrative of negativity about a place I loved: public health emergencies, cyclical military interventions, dysfunctional NGOs, chronic deforestation, government malfeasance, hopelessness. I now have thousands of photographs documenting the tonsorial art of Haiti, and have formed relationships with many of the artists responsible.
Very early in this documentary undertaking, now named “The Amazing Barbershop Project” after a particularly spectacular Leogane shop, I began to consider how or if what I was doing could become an exchange, rather than an essentially acquisitive process of collection. As I worked, barbershop proprietors and even passersby unconnected with the businesses I was photographing would accost me, sometimes aggressively, and maintain that I should pay to snap pictures. I quickly began to ask permission first. I went inside shops with stacks of photographs I had already made and explained my interest, a simple gesture of respect that much more often than not met with enthusiasm. When I returned again on a subsequent trip and brought enlargements as gifts, the barbers seemed stunned to meet a foreigner who actually followed through on his promises.
But it is with the artists that I formed the deepest bonds, and have even launched a small business venture that aims only to expand the clientele for the work they are already doing. Driving through the traffic-clogged streets with my eyes peeled for barbershops, I soon began to identify styles and individuals. While some of the paintings are crude and simplistic, and my initial attraction had been to the naïve, I realized that painters of extraordinary talent and capacity were working in this domain. Because the cinderblock walls they painted were advertisements for their own talents as well as for the client barbershop, the artists generally include their telephone number below a signature. I began to call the painters I consistently admired, asking to interview them, and to be taken on a tour of their personal gallery of al fresco works dotted throughout the dense neighborhoods of the city. Together with some of them, I established a website, amazingbarbershop.com, to offer their prodigious talents to the wider world. The participating painters create commissioned portraits on canvas, based on photographs I send via Whatsapp, or facebook messenger. As a result I am in near-constant communication with some of the principal creators of the images I have been obsessively documenting.