Clockwise from top left: Steven McKay, Esther, Rebecca (mother), Chloe, Lois and Abigail, Scotland
The success of his first book, Gingers, has taken photographer Kieran Dodds by surprise. The hardback edition sold out within days of its publication in November 2020, no doubt helped by a story on the BBC News website. A softcover edition then followed within four weeks, bound in mustard-coloured textured paper.
Gingers features portraits of people from across the globe with something in common – their hair is various hues of red. From Dodds’ native Scotland to Russia, via Jamaica and the Middle East, he has found and photographed pockets of ‘gingers’, as he prefers to call them. Some of the subjects are closer to home – they include a self-portrait and an image of his twin daughters.
Here Dodds, a former recipient of the TPA/RPS Environmental Bursary whose research-driven work explores the intersection between humanity and nature, explains what drove him to create this series of portraits.
Your first book, Gingers, has been a few years in the making. What inspired it and how did it develop into a series that crossed continents?
The series in some ways is a curve ball. For two decades my personal work has focused on the interplay of environment and culture, in particular through images of people within the landscape. Before the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, I sketched out ideas to work on – an analogue landscape series, two video works, an environmental portrait series of 16-year-old voters, and Gingers, which was partly a challenge to myself to work within fixed parameters and lighting. I also hoped to become better at portraiture, although that wasn’t the key motivation for this project.
I wanted to take a subset of Scots and show there is huge diversity – of look, thought, background – within this apparently homogenous group. The aesthetic was shaped by the quality of light and meaning in Renaissance works on display in the National Gallery of Scotland. I realised on a visit in 2013 that every painting had at least one ginger, often the key character – Jesus or Mary. This is no superficial trait but has resonance at a global, even universal, level. The term ‘beauty’ is lessened by modern contexts but the painters wanted us to see something, to feel awe and wonder, which is closer to beauty than just looking pretty. The golden locks of a ginger can inspire wonder.
What does it mean to be red-haired in 2021 – would you go as far as to say it unites people from different cultures?
That’s exactly what the book was for – to connect distant peoples visually with a common, golden thread. We are made of the same stuff and with the hair it shows. The book is edited to make connections across the countries.
There are few words but you are invited to compare and connect, to study the names, ages, locations and even the colour of the hair. I call red hair ginger because it’s not really red, is it? Ginger has more descriptive power, covering orange and gold and brown. The Russians call it “rege” or rusty which is closer to reality.
I took a transect from Jamaica to Russia via Europe and the Middle East to be representative of the globe. Even in Scotland, one individual can tell a global story. A boy from Inverness has parents from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. We call him Scottish, and he is, but he is part of our travelling species – we all are.
The Scottish referendum felt like a time of division – naturally enough as we only had two choices – but one that would require healing in order to see the people as people, not a collection of political views. The pandemic has only exacerbated these fissures but photography offers a way of seeing.
I visited Russia in 2017 to make the portraits, and was struck by how great the country was and also how much prejudice I unfairly held against it. The bad guys in films are Russian and every headline has them hacking, poisoning and interfering but the vast majority just want to live peaceful lives in their communities. I was honoured to show some of the images at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg as part of a group show.
How did it feel to be able to add portraits of your own girls to the book?
They only appeared after I started shooting the series so they are a recent addition. I dedicated the book to them so they can know they are part of something bigger, beyond national allegiances or borders – part of humanity. We are a deeply flawed species but also imbued with great dignity and golden hair gives us glimpses of that hidden glory.
Gingers by Kieran Dodds is published by Hide Press.
The RPS Journal is available exclusively to members. Join us to receive our award-winning magazine and read more inspiring features. Explore full member benefits here.
All images by Kieran Dodds.
Left, top to bottom: ‘Gilad Belkin, Israel, born 1988’. ‘Tatiana and Valeria Korotaeva, Russia, born 1998 and 1999’. ‘Marteka Nembhard, Jamaica, born 2005’. ‘Izzy and Ada Dodds, Scotland, born 1980’.
Right, top to bottom: ‘Alexander Soued, Scotland, born 2011’. ‘Jordan DeLeon, Scotland, born 2016’. ‘Lucy Fleming, Scotland, born 2005’. ‘Randy Wong, Jamaica, born 1988’.