Being only 2% of the global population, redheads are the real unicorns of the Earth. But within this niche, this percentage can flutuate massively depending on where you are in the world.
For example, Scotland boasts the highest percent of gingers, with an estimated 13%, Ireland with 10%, but did you know there’s a pocket in Russia with a high percentage of redheads too? And how about Jamaica, where red hair is also seen in the population?
What’s equally as interesting as the genetics behind red hair are the varying attitudes towards the trait. This sparked the interest of redheaded photographer Kieran Dodds, who wanted to capture this sense of connection across different communities around the world.
His latest project, Gingers, holds the results, a photo book of redheads taken from various countries over several years. We spoke with him about why he started the project, and the differences and similarities he found on his travels.
Why did you start the Gingers project?
I have been ginger all my life but this series began a year before the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014. I was considering questions of national identity and how landscape acts as the crucible of culture. My other photographic projects centre around the environment, our impact on it but also how it shapes us.
A trip to the National Gallery of Scotland brought home the fact it is a global trait – every painting in the Early Renaissance room upstairs had a ginger character despite it being southern European artists depicting Middle Eastern characters. Usually they are people of divinity or those touched by the divine. Then I discovered a dubious map on the internet of the ginger hot spots.
Gingers focuses on those hot spots in particular but is a global transect from the Americas to Asia. I used these inspirations to draw a common link between all peoples across distant political boundaries. A golden thread to unite nations, a little spark in daily life that points us up from the humdrum to remember of the wonder in the universe!
“Kids tend to get the most attention for its beauty (it’s more intense as a child) but with attention come the bullies. As they grow up it becomes a positive identifier for them. A good reason to stand out.”
What has been the reception across different countries to the project?
I have always felt a secondary player in this story as it takes on a life of its own. People publish and share the work far and wide, they contact me too with stories and pictures. Of course you get some trolls but generally, like in life, people are rightly amazed by the colour. I am always surprised by it.
I decided I need to collect the work as a book to focus the work on the main point: humans are made of the same stuff and sometimes it shows.
Have you found that attitudes to red hair differ across different countries?
Generally it was very similar, regarded as something rare and beautiful. Kids tend to get the most attention for its beauty (it’s more intense as a child) but with attention come the bullies. As they grow up it becomes a positive identifier for them. A good reason to stand out.
The only place I didn’t hear of people being bullied for their hair was Jamaica. The country’s motto is ‘Out of many, one nation’. I kept asking if they had faced trouble for it, but they said nothing. In Treasure Beach the ‘Red Men’ are known in the country (and beyond) and it’s a thing of pride I suppose. They have a lot to be proud of too, the place is incredible. Safe, friendly and a tropical paradise. Stick it on your bucket list for when this is all over.
“Bullies tried to say stupid things but it didn’t really bother me probably because I knew good people with the colouring. I felt it was a very Scottish thing to possess and that was a good thing for me.”
What was it like for you growing up with red hair?
My mum and older brother were ginger so, as I loved and admired them, I thought it was great. My grandad, who was an unassuming legend and hero, was ginger too. I loved my blonde sister and dad, of course! Bullies tried to say stupid things but it didn’t really bother me probably because I knew good people with the colouring. I felt it was a very Scottish thing to possess and that was a good thing for me.
Do you believe that being a redhead contributes to personality? How do you explore this idea of identity in Gingers?
Our physical bodies shape who we are. Superficially it affects personality by how some people may relate to us but it goes to the core of who and what we are. At the heart of every cell in our bodies the DNA makes every fibre of our being. While there are only a handful of genes related to ginger hair (more than just the MC1R), these impact on physiology. How we respond to sunlight but also anaesthetic. You can dye your hair but you can’t recode you DNA.
Before every portrait I sat and spoke with the person, asking who they were and how their hair impacted their life, if at all. The responses varied but because they stood out and people commented on it, people had thought about where the trait (and thus where they) came from. So they found connections in their own life, where they came from and understanding it is a deep part of them. Not the whole of their being but a deep part.
It’s not the centre of my identity but its significant. In the book I wanted to crystallise this sense of connection and trace our place in the world with the pictures. I don’t transcribe the interviews in the book but I use the portraits to create an album of sorts, the family of man shown in one trait. Not only Gingers but how we are part of something bigger, the ebb and flow of human migration over time.
“There is no attitude surveys on it but from anecdotal chats there seems an embracing of the colour as fashionable or cool. But that may also be a wider change towards identity niches. Niche is cool.”
How do you feel about being called ‘ginger’? Do you think it should be used interchangeably with ‘redhead’, or is that something different?
It’s not really red though, is it? Fire engines are red, or blood or Red Square. I used the term ‘ginger’ for its descriptive power, the hair is blonde, orange, gold, and white, all on the same head, a spectrum of tones and shades. Red feels too monotone. The Russians call it ‘rege’ or ‘rusty’ which is a bit better really. ‘Ginger’ is used as an insult but so can most words.
Do you feel that attitudes towards red hair and freckles are changing in society?
Possibly. There is no attitude surveys on it but from anecdotal chats there seems an embracing of the colour as fashionable or cool. But that may also be a wider change towards identity niches. Niche is cool.
Certainly younger folks I chat to seem to say its OK and then their parents say how hard it was for them. That’s what older folks tend to say though, “it was harder in my day”. Either way it has been objectively incredible through human history whether people accept that or not. Maybe the book will convince some people of this universal truth.
Gingers by Kieran Dodds is out Friday 20 November 2020 and is available to buy frombook.kierandodds.com
Interview by Emma