Recycled as expensive hair extensions and wigs for the West or sold for use as raw material for the chemical industry, human hair trade has grown into an extremely profitable business, with more than 95% of all human hair imports coming from India and China. The human hair business first boomed across India in the Sixties, but sales dropped when synthetic alternatives were introduced. Since then complaints of skin allergies, especially by European consumers, once again boosted the demand for natural hair. The human hair trade has become a large market entirely export-oriented, that thrives on painstaking methods of collecting hair from villages and slums where hair is least likely to be dyed or treated with chemicals. Factory workers as young as 12 years old spend their days sorting, combing and cleaning the hair collected from villagers, barber shops and temples. Women are being increasingly targeted and exploited by unscrupulous agents because there are not specific restrictions on the import and export of human hair. This is obviously an environment that breeds illegality. The Hindu temples of Tirupati in the southern province of Andhra Pradesh are the centre of the global trade in human hair and the wealthiest in all of India. Each year thousands of worshipers make pilgrimages to visit the statue of Vishnu, where their hair is cut off as an act of religious sacrifice and devotion. Babies are shaved for good luck and adults allow themselves to be shaved to thank the gods. The temples are permitted to spend not more than one third of their revenues from hair sales on expansion and renovation. The rest goes to charities, schools, orphanages and hospitals. Within a few days, tonnes of donated hair make its way from the warehouses in the temple to lucrative auctions and processing factories around the port of Chennai, eventually arriving in Europe and America where it will adorn the heads of Western women. Indian hair is renowned for its quality and is bought raw for between $2 and $5 per kilo. Once processed, it is sold to extensions and wig makers for around $40 per kilo. Lower quality hair is interwoven with other fabrics to make jackets linings, mattresses and cosmetic brushes, or it is converted into amino acids, which in turn are used in food and medicine. The demand in the UK and US for hair extensions and cosmetic products with hair extracts means that turning faith into fashion has become a new big industry over the past ten years, earning major temples and exporters revenues of more than $3oo million annually. Celebrities are the best advertisement for companies like Great Lenghts, an international conglomerate with 45 distribution offices in 53 countries that controls around 60% of the world market for human hair extensions and processes 5 tons of hair each month. Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, Victoria Beckham, Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow have all had long hair extensions glued to their own, and thousands of regular women in the developed world have followed the trend, paying up to $2000 for a full head session to extend volume or length. Women have an average of 100 to 200 grams of hair on their head and the extensions last for six months. By then a person’s own hair will have grown so that the extensions no longer sit properly in place, so the foreign hair is removed and discarded. The human hair business is growing at the phenomenal rate of 40% annually, creating a network of dealers on all continents and air shipments around the globe. The sole purpose of all this effort is to transfer hair from one head to another, because having one’s own hair is just not enough. Hair has to be shiny, smooth, long and perfect.
Most of the shops I am visiting in Brixton for my project are specialized in African Caribbean hair and beauty products. These products have been specifically developed for Afro consumers and they are generally not available at most high street shops in the UK. They stock natural human hair wigs, hair extensions, hair braids, hair dryers, black skin care products, afro wigs, hair sprays, oils, moisturizers, gel, hair dyes, hair straightening irons, and everything else you can imagine related to hair. Most of the salons in the area use these products with local costumers all the time and it is regarded as an important part of their identity, but it is also a big business with other kind of costumers willing to pay huge amounts of money for different reasons in areas like Chelsea. After a few frustrating days wandering around the streets and talking to everyone who wanted to listen to my stories, I am finally getting access to slighty more deep situations with some of the hairdressers and clients in both sides of the industry. The original idea was to follow the process of buying hair in Brixton and using it in Chelsea by one of the girls working in a posh salon, but maybe it would be more interesting to compare these two opposite worlds in a new way, and raise some other issues potentially related to the main subject, like race, social exclusion or aesthetics in different parts of the world. Basically I haven’t decided yet how to organize the project, so every comment is more that welcome.
Doing some research for my project, I found out that Egyptians developed in 1500 BC a theraphy to beat hair loss that required the toes of a dog, dates, the hoof of an ass and the blood from the neck of a gagbu bird. A thousands years later Hippocrates prescribed to his patients a concoction of cumin, pigeon droppings, horseradish and beetroot, though with little success. Finally in 1995 researchers at Duke University in North Carolina noticed that castration was effective and possibly the only permanent solution to male hair loss. Since then men and women have been chasing the solution of how to successfully develop new human hair, since hair taken from one area of the body and transplanted somewhere else wouldn't maintain necessarily its genetic integrity. 100000 hairs are found on the average healthy scalp; 2-6 years is the lenght of most people's hair grown cycle and 90% of hair is in the growth phase of this cycle at any one time; 10% of hair is resting and drops out after three months to be replaced by new hair and 100 hairs are shed each day through natural loss or abrasion. I am visiting now shops and salons and talking to custumers and professionals in the industry to understand better how people deal with hair. Issues about identity and race keep unfolding in fron of me, but the most evident and simple conclusion is that hair is such an important thing for men and women.
I was born in a small university town called Salamanca in the middle of Spain in 1968. It was almost unavoidable for me to study a Degree in Literature and Linguistics in my hometown and then I started travelling and working as a lecturer through the years until I landed in London and somehow my life changed.
For the last eight years I have been working at Cervantes Institute, a public institution from the Spanish Government that was founded in 1991 to promote Spanish language teaching and culture of Spanish-speaking countries throughout the world.
After having completed an MA in Cultural and Creative Industries at King's College London in 2005, my professional ambitions and interests started to shift. I undertook different projects of academic research about the Tourism Industry and then I went off travelling again to see everything I was reading about through the lens of my camera.
Since my last return to London, I have been teaching and helping to organize different exhibitions, conferences and Film festivals at Cervantes Institute in London.