Alice and Lily
So, redheads could be extinct within one hundred years. With no survival advantage to gingerism, it has been suggested that the gene may die out. Is that really the kind of evolutionary progress we want to see? Photographer Jenny Wicks has documented the increasingly elusive breed in a series called Root Ginger, and Emily Hobbs visited the Idea Generation Gallery to check it out.
Redheads are a pretty big deal. From naughty Eve in the Garden of Eden, without whom some might argue none of us would be here at all, to Britain's most renowned monarchs - Henry-the-serial-wife-killer and his daughter Elizabeth-the-virgin (perhaps some connection there), not to mention the recent Prince Harry-the-rascist. People have been singing ballads to readheads since time immemorial (especially the Irish). More recently there was Valerie, so lamented by The Zutons and Amy Winehouse in the song of the same name. Would the song worked if Valerie had been a brunette? It’s impossible to say. Yet despite their abundant tenacity, gingers receive a very bad press and have often found themselves the objects of ridicule and the victims of what remains in our society, apparently, the last acceptable discrimination.
It was a reaction to this type of discrimination that prompted the photographer, Jenny Wicks, to explore what it means to be ginger through her study Root Ginger, a film project complemented by a book of photographic portraits focusing exclusively on red-headed subjects.
When both her nephews were born with ginger hair and one of them was later diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, Wicks undertook an investigation into her family’s genetic history and discovered that there existed recessive traits for both the disease and red hair. It was this seemingly random allocation of DNA that inspired her to delve deeper into the subject.
“The book is a tribute to people with this hair colour," says Wicks, “but it is also an investigation into the genetic lottery that we all play… I was interested to explore the phenomenon of recessive genes as well as the human tendency to judge and make snap decisions about people who simply look different to them."
Wicks' photographs are beautiful and touching studies in gingerness, spanning the very young, the adolescent, and those who are approaching old age (ginger people don’t go grey, they go sandy then white). Beside some of the portraits are testimonials from the subjects; anecdotes about their experiences as people with ginger hair in a monochromatic follicular landscape.
“My mother’s reaction to being told her first-born was a ginger was to weep uncontrollably," says one man. In another, a young woman explains how no one in her family has her hair colour, except for her father, who had a head of black hair but a ginger moustache.
Wicks’ photographs invite the viewer to consider the social aspects of having red hair and how society views and treats a minority group. For many, discrimination against those with ginger hair, either by teasing or more aggressive measures, remains the last bastion against political correctness and the subjects’ anecdotes often prove this.
What is most arresting about the Root Ginger study is how viscerally lovely red hair actually is. The enduring feeling you’re left with as a non-ginger onlooker is that of being an outsider – the positions become reversed. Being ginger is not a signifier of ‘otherness’ but it is transformed into a membership pass to an exclusive and rare club. You want to be ginger too. You are envious.
But ultimately Root Ginger is a testimony to, and a celebration of, the wonderful diversity and innate gorgeousness of human beings.
A selection of images from the book Root Ginger: A Study of Red Hair by photographer Jenny Wicks will be exhibited at Idea Generation Gallery until 8 March 2009. Proceeds go to Cystic Fibrosis Trust. For more info, visit www.ideageneration.co.uk
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