It was during a road trip across Botswana, Namibia and South Africa in 2009 that British photographer Simon Weller first had the idea for his barbershop project. While on his travels, Weller came across many rural roadside salons and barbershops, built from shipping containers and other makeshift structures. As a former graphic designer, he was drawn to the vivid hand-painted signage and eye-catching artwork that adorned these.

Barbershops in South Africa
Haircutting at Setswa Se Tsena Hair Cut,  Soshanguve Pretoria
Barbershop King Hair
Donald, barber and owner of King Tiger Hair Clinique, Dzanani

Returning to London, Weller was able to get New York publisher Mark Batty on board to publish a book on the subject. He returned to South Africa in November 2009 and began to document the townships, traveling with guides and shooting with low-key equipment to capture the shops and salons in a realistic light. Not knowing how he would be received, and how people would feel about being photographed, Weller found that the response to the project was in fact overwhelmingly positive.

Barbershop RED
Lucky, barber and owner of Hollywood Barbershop, Cape Town
Barbershop South African Barber
Julius, barber & owner of Cheap Price Hair Salon, Johannesburg
Barbershop Sign
Barbershop Art, Langa, Cape Town. Artist: Unknown
Barbershop Khayelitsha
Barbershop mural, Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Artist: Unknown

The images focus primarily on the barbershop art; the distinctive painted imagery and signs, and the artists who created them. Recurring themes are obvious here, in both style and subject, with images of successful African American stars such as Tupac Shakur, Will Smith and Beyoncé among the most prominently featured.

What originally began as a project to document these artworks quickly became something deeper, as Weller came to understand the role that the barbershops play as community hubs. The resulting images highlight the social significance of these shops and salons, really bustling social spaces where different generations congregate and stories are shared.

Barbershop Judgement Day Salon
Judgement Day Hair Salon, Khayelitsha, Cape Town
"I came to understand the significance of the barbershop and salon as the hub of the community."
Simon Weller
Barbershop Every lasting cuts
Interior shot of Skhu’s Haircuts, Pimville, Soweto, Johannesburg
Barbershops R
Salon portrait, Alexandra Johannesburg. Artist: Unknown

The photographs are accompanied by interviews with the shop owners and their customers, building a rounded portrait of town life and the continuing social and political struggles. The images are vibrant and distinctly celebratory; a positive portrayal of community as well as a tribute to the dynamic work of South Africa’s prolific barbershop artists.

Barbershop Third Class Hair shop
3rd Class Hair Shop, Khayelitsha, Cape Town
Barbershop young boy
Lennox, barber at 3rd Class Hair Shop, Khayelitsha, Cape Town

Simon Weller on 3rd Class Hair Shop, Khayelitsha (above)

“This barbershop itself was a rarity, a two-storey shack in the township of Khayelitsha, Cape Town, one of the biggest slums in the world. I always employed a local person to guide me through their neighbourhoods, and this almost always smoothed the way with the barbers as to my intentions. This time, though, it was different. The barber and owner was a man named Lennox and he wasn’t convinced about my project. What was in it for him? He was angry, quite rightly, about the conditions his people lived in. ‘Look at the name of my barbershop,’ he said to me, ‘It is the 3rd Class Hair shop. I called it this because we are third class citizens in our own country’. It was hard to argue with what he was saying, but I decided to keep talking to him about my intentions to publish a book that gave a voice to the real people, and helped give a glimpse into positive aspects of their community, far from the stories so often reported in the white newspapers. After an hour of conversation, Lennox began to mellow and gave me great access to his shop. That’s when I climbed up to the second storey to get this shot of him working.”

Credits

Text Emma de Clercq
All images courtesy of Simon Weller

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