Process 080 ☼ Documenting Barbershops Around The World
Developing an Editorial Project for a Commercial Client
This week’s letter is about one of my favorite client projects ever for which I traveled around the world documenting barbershops in ten cities across three continents.
I opened up a limited number of mentor sessions for the remainder of 2022. They were gone quickly so I created a wait list for January. To get on the list email me with the subject line “Mentor Session”. Read more about how a mentor session works here.
Below is a picture from a recent Zoom session with Tokyo-based photographer Alvin Jurianto who had this to say about the experience:
“The mentoring session was a wonderful experience! It was my first time narrative-oriented project and Wesley really helped by providing a framework and direction. Wesley’s approach and communication style ensured that fruitful ideas were generated and it was a very creatively fulfilling experience!”
Creating an Editorial Project For A Commercial Client
To start off here’s a breakdown of my client work in three distinct categories:
Commercial e.g. advertising campaigns for companies.
Corporate e.g. team photos and executive portraits for companies.
Sometimes two of these categories can blend together. A great example is when, in 2016, razor company Harrys launched Five O’Clock Magazine, an editorial site and newsletter about shaving and self-care for men.
I had previously worked with Harrys editorial director Caitlin when she was at Shinola. We had a great experience working together that time so I pitched her on How To Talk To Your Barber, a series documenting barbershops around the world.
One selling point was that I was semi-permanently on the road already and would be able to tag on a shoot in most cities without the additional expense of travel and lodging. This allowed us to work on stories together that would usually be too expensive but now fit their budget and delivered high-end photo essays.
Over the course of a year or two I documented barbershops and interviewed barbers in ten different cities across three continents, including the ever-charming Temescal Alley Barbershop in Oakland which you can see below.
Why Timing Was Perfect
In the early 2010’s the United States was in the midst of a craft revival. Between the craft cocktail movement, a throwback to jazz age fashion, and the resurgence of the traditional men’s barbershop, it was a great time to drink whiskey while getting a haircut from a guy in suspenders. This is all to say, it was the perfect moment to document this cultural revival for Harrys and they approved the project right away.
The team at Harrys assisted in the research to find barbershops that fit their brand. As soon as I knew I would be traveling to a specific city, I’d notify them and they’d send over a few pre-approved barbershop options for me to reach out to.
In many ways this client project was an extension of One of Many, my personal project for which I photographed 600 creatives across 12 US cities. It tapped into my curiosity about people and why they do what they do and how they got good at it.
During the interviews each barbers shared one piece of must-know advice for men and their hair. I learned so much!
One thing I was delighted to discover was that many barbershops had a shop dog. Here’s a cutie looking up with eyes that say: “Nice cut but how about cuddles now?”
During this time I visited beautiful Iceland for the first time. In Reykjavik, all signs pointed towards The Barber’s Corner located inside of menswear shop Herrafataverzlun Kormáks & Skjaldar. Head barber Stjúri Sigurðsson sported an iconic beard and long hair which made portraits incredibly easy to take.
Being limited to only using available light meant I had to improvise and create a unique color palette and atmosphere for each location while still making it feel like they all were part of the same series. In Los Angeles I visited Manly & Sons Barber Company which had gloriously moody lighting for me to play with.
In the city of Yangon the lighting was also minimal, but for different reasons. It was a sweltering 36°C (98° F) day and mid-cut the power went out. Barber Mgo Mgo was so used to it he just kept going and delivered a great cut.
In Portland (ME) I met Norman Millette, 78 years of age, at the barbershop he opened some 54 years earlier. Imagine how many different hair styles he had seen come and go! He was cutting hair when barbershops were having a big moment in the 1950’s and at some point changed the name of the shop from Longfellow Barber Shop to Senior Citizen Barber Shop to better suit his aged clientele.
American Barbershop culture revival also reached Hong Kong where I visited Hair House Barbershop by Adam Chan, tucked away on the third floor of a random building.
In Chicago I visited Irving Park Barbershop which was decorated with all kinds of great old posters, stickers, and collectible trinkets.
In Frankfurt I visited Torreto Barbershop where Greek-born owner Alex staked his claim of it being the “only true barbershop” in Germany.
This was the last barbershop I shot for this series, which ended in 2018 when Harrys changed their editorial direction and shut down Five O Clock Magazine. A real shame because I would have loved to continue documenting barbershop culture but that’s how it goes sometimes doing client work for startups.
One thing I would have loved to do was expand into a more diverse array of shops, especially black barbershops which have a deeply meaningful cultural significance in their communities. Previous to this series I was fortunate to photograph the Boyz II Men Barbershop as part of One of Many’s Savannah GA chapter, where they cut my hair and it was an incredibly warm and interesting experience. Perhaps in the future.
If your pitch connects well to a cultural moment and to the client’s product it has a better chance to get approved.
Putting yourself in the client’s shoes is helpful when pitching. I wanted to do a long-term project with a large scope and I knew this client would have the perfect platform for telling this story. However I also knew this client was a startup and likely didn’t have the money to outright pay for it. This led me to come up with a creative way to make it all work, shoot it during time off when I was traveling already and it made this project an easier yes and a big win-win.
For more pictures in this barbershop series, visit my website.
That’s it for this week!
Next week: I dive deep into my archives and share a surrealist landscape project I created and talk about how it was inspired by a personal experience.
Keep shooting and take good care of yourselves and others.
A quick shout out to my friends and lab of choice Carmencita Film Lab who develop and scan all my film. Use code “PROCESS” at check out to get a free size upgrade for your scans.
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