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CUT Festival: Photographer Paula Harrowing on a hair obsession for life

I have always been slightly obsessed with hair, mainly facial hair since I was a kid. My father was a pilot in Kenya, East Africa and fittingly, he had a huge handlebar moustache. I used to sit on the end of his bed and watch him brush, twiddle and oil the long curvy hair that was his pride and joy.

It was in 2009 Kolkata, India that I was to revisit my secret obsession. I was staying with a friend of mine who set up Shuktara, homes for abandoned deaf, disabled children and young people. As I had visited a few times, I had got to know them all quite well. One day I was summoned by the boys to join them, high upon the rooftop as the monsoons had started and the torrents of rain were now a sign of change. In the heat of the rains they washed themselves and each other, calling me to photograph them. It was a magical time watching as the soap suds created white tracks across their skin and tiny bubble flowers that hugged their beards and hair.

The following day a barber arrived with an intriguing box of goodies. A brightly coloured wooden box filled with brushes, blades and a Bengali god. I was asked to join them again for it was a day of shaving, a day of cleansing. One by one all the boys took their turn for the barber to remove the unwanted hair, hair that represented a passing of another season and time. So when I was approached by the Cut Festival with the proposition to photograph different barbershops in East London, how could I refuse? The opportunity to capture the intimacy, the history and different communities, I said - hell yes!!

I moved to London when I was 17, now many moons ago. I have lived most of my time since in South London but the pull of the East has always filled me with much excitement. Memories of school trips to London, where I would often find myself down the Eastend, on the hunt for late night bagels. Brick Lane was a very different place then, no hipster barbers, organic wines nor vegan chocolate houses. Brick Lane and the surrounding area hummed with life; Bengali traders working alongside a large visible Hasidic Jewish community and often the sound of the call to prayer filled the tiny crowded streets.

There is a very visible change now in the Eastend; it’s become a tourist haven with daily multi-language street art guided tours. A swarm of hipster barbers have taken up residence in one-time family restaurants and vintage stores. For me, if felt very important to look at the barbershops that have survived gentrification and to those who have found safety within the new developing communities of the new Eastend. Large parts of the Eastend are now supporting an ever growing LGBTQI community where restaurants, clubs, bars and safe gender inclusive barbers have taken up residence.

My mission is to try and find a common ground for both, old and new. To try and collate a history, a community, an art, a definition of self and for some, a spiritual journey. The choice of barbers hopefully supports this.

The first barbers shot were newcomers to East London. Headcase, nestling in the heart of Shoreditch just off Brick Lane. General Store, tucked away under the arches in London Fields. LGBTQI barbers, Barberette, Dalston and Open Barbers, Hoxton offering an all-inclusive embracing safe space. Long-established traditional barbers Saf’s, Lower Clapton filled with barbering archives and one of Brick Lanes oldest barbers, Hafiz. Barbering initiatives working with the homeless, Total Barbers, Old Street and Crisis. Cut Festival’s contributor Conrad Kira’s’ favourite barber, Blush and my selected art barber, LadyBoi Hair, hair sculptors with fashion designer, Sade English. My last shoot is a sikh friend, whose hair carries another aspect to barbering/grooming, spiritual and religion. For me this is the full circle, connecting me to my first images of the young men in Kolkata.

Personally, I cut my own hair. Having been given a shaving kit as a Christmas gift a couple of years ago, I was given freedom to rid myself from unwanted hair when I chose. I love the routine I have created. The correct placement of the mirror. The laying out of the numbered hair guides. The little black plastic cape. Followed then, by the actual, thrilling shaving of my head. Job done.

Paula Harrowing is an exhibiting photographer at CUT Festival: The Art of Barbering exhibition at the Archive Gallery, Haggerston. She has also created a CUT Festival free newspaper with festival curator and live artist Jamie Lewis Hadley. This will be available from barbershops and galleries all over London from the launch date and distributed in barbershops in the run up to the festival.

CUT Festival runs from Friday 24 February to Sunday 5 March 2017, when Toynbee Studios and Archive Gallery in Haggerston will be exploring a celebration of barbershops. Contributors include photographer Hick Duarte from Brazil; Brandon Tauszik from the USA exhibits his celebrated GIF studies of Oakland’s African-American barbers; also from USA, philanthropist barber Mark Bustos will brings high end grooming to those affected by homelessness in help to Crisis; London artists Cary Kwok, Oreet Ashery and Paula Harrowing will add their acclaimed drawings, film and photographs to the festival exhibition.

Visit the website for the full programme. #cutfestival2017, tweet at @CUT_Festival, or head over to the CUT Festival Facebook and Instagram to see what's going on.