In the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, artist Kieran Dodds began photographing people with the rarest form of hair colour – ginger. Kieran, himself ‘a ginger’, was interested in this cliché of Scottish national identity and wanted to show that even within this small group there is a huge diversity of appearance. Initially focusing on his homeland of Scotland where 13 percent of the population have ginger hair, he has since expanded the project to other hotspots of red hair around the world.
In this interview to welcome photographs from the series to the collection at the National Galleries of Scotland, curator Louise Pearson speaks to the photographer about this project and how we can trace Scottish history through hotspots of ginger hair around the world.
Louise Pearson: Kieran, can you tell us how the project evolved beyond Scotland to include people with ginger hair around the world?
Kieran Dodds: I was thinking of different ideas of Scottish identity and the one that struck me first was the fact that I’m a cliché of national identity, being both pale and ginger! I started looking into this and very quickly it became clear that it was a global trait, a global story. By coincidence, at that time I went into the Scottish National Gallery to see paintings from the early renaissance and every single painting had a ginger person in it, usually in the centre. And it occurred to me as unusual that these southern European artists had pictures of Middle Eastern characters in often biblical scenes and yet they were ginger. So, there was some cultural understanding of the hair colour, whatever that may have been.
When I started doing some research online I discovered a map which had the Celtic fringe, a hotspot of red hair in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The map was very clear and confident that there was a hotspot there. Off to the east there was this curious hotspot in Russia.
Almost instantly in my research I found this strange draw to the east and I began thinking about the world and how it relates to Scotland.
When I started doing the portraits in Scotland I started to meet people who were Scottish themselves, who had been born here, yet their own personal stories had rich diversity and connections across the world.
One example is the photograph of Alexander Soued, who is a quintessential Highland laddie from Inverness with red hair and a cheeky look. His mother is from Eastern Europe and his father is from the Middle East. They chose to come to Scotland and to live and raise their son there. So you’ve got this young lad who has a rich family history in very recent times and that really challenged my idea of what it is to be Scottish and how we are part of this global movement, this ebb and flow of migration through time which you can see today. In some small way I wanted to capture that in the photographs.
LP: I think what struck me is that it tells us a lot about Scottish emigration through history. When you talk about the portraits in Jamaica and Russia it really links us together with our history and the past so I wondered what you had learned through looking at the project that way.
KD: It was after I’d done the work in Russia and Britain that I got this hint from a friend who said there are red haired people in Jamaica. Instantly it piqued my interest and as I read about it, I found out about this place called Treasure Beach. There is folklore that a Scottish ship ran aground there, and that all the sailors came ashore and fell in love. It’s a great story but when I was chatting to the local historian, Doctor Bones, he told me that it is not a true story.
Treasure Beach is an island like Jamaica itself which was colonised, not just by European nations but people coming from South America and then the conquistadors from Spain. There were successive waves of immigration of Spaniards, French, English and the Scots and of course African slaves coming over to work in the plantations so you have this nation that is so rich and diverse through its history. Indeed, its motto is: ‘Out of Many, One People’. But even then, I still find it quite shocking or surprising rather that there are people with actual red hair there.
It's a string of fishing villages, Treasure Beach, a very sleepy, laid-back place. You’ll be driving around and then suddenly see this flash of red hair. These people have incredible looks to them so that was interesting and then as I read more of the history of the local area, I found out about the Scottish plantation owners but also the indentured labourers. Scotland sent a lot of people across the seas not just as colonisers but as labourers. Prisoners of war, the covenanters, political prisoners, these people went over there to work the land. It was interesting to understand a bit more of what Scotland has done in the world. And there is also the link with the Darien colony Scotland had in Panama. A lot of people when that failed dramatically stayed in the Caribbean and Jamaica was one of the first ports of call, so it made a lot of connections in my mind about our role in the world.
There’s great suffering and dispossession from Scots going overseas and that intertwines with the dark history of slavery as well. It was interesting to find out that in Treasure Beach itself there was an understanding of Scotland. In Jamaica there are so many Scottish second names that you’d recognise instantly, and the legacy of the Christian church is still strong there. But the people I spoke to on the ground didn’t think of themselves as Scottish, they were Jamaican and to be red haired in Jamaica is known as a thing, especially around Treasure Beach.
LP: I was interested in that because in Scotland we are so used to seeing people with ginger hair. I wonder if people in Jamaica had had a different experience because they do stand out among people that they live with.
KD: The experience tends to be that you stand out. As a kid growing up you are picked on because that is the trait that sets you apart, so bullies latch on to it. You enjoy it as a young child and people compliment it. As a teenager it becomes awkward, and you get bullied. And then grow to love it, hopefully, later on. And that was similar almost everywhere apart from Jamaica, interestingly. I think because of the diversity of the island – Out of Many, One People – it wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t something even the teenagers I spoke to thought about. They weren’t bullied for it. It wasn’t something that people latched on to. Maybe partly because there is a local pride about being from that area.
LP: Almost like that Scottish pride, in a way. There is that kind of national pride linked to the ginger hair in some situations.
KD: Yes, it could be, although it’s funny because in Scotland it is ridiculed more than in other countries. And the Scots said that when they went abroad, people loved the incredible hair colour whereas in Scotland itself it is the butt of jokes, isn’t it?
LP: When you were looking for people with ginger hair in Scotland to take part in the project, did many people coming forward? Did people really want to share their story about it?
KD: When I put the request out through friends and social media I was overwhelmed, to be honest. I tried to work out why people wanted to be part of it, and I think partly it’s because they like the images and they see what I’m trying to do. It’s not about hair, ultimately, it’s about humanity. I am trying to connect people across the world, and I am using this very visual trait to make these connections. Ginger hair shows that we’re made of the same stuff. DNA is written in across the world.
When people came along, I’d speak to them first of all and ask what it has meant to them, if it has had any impact on their life and sometimes I’d be sat there thinking I was part of a ginger support group! I think children needed encouraged to come along a bit more, especially if they were at the age where they were going to secondary school because it is a bit awkward. But I was always heartened by parents writing afterwards to say that they saw their child standing taller having been part of something where they realise they are amazing.
LP: I noticed that Jack McNaughton talked about his grandad and how he really felt the connection to his grandad because of the red hair. I thought that was nice because it is often something that occurs in families, forming a strong bond across the generations. Did you find that coming out when you were making the portrait?
KD: So that was often the question I would ask: where did it come from? Some people said that it skipped a generation, or that the entire family was ginger. Jack’s was probably the most moving portrait to make over the years. He has Cerebral Palsy and he has been through many operations. His mum was there and the bond between them makes me choke up even now, just thinking about it. He was amazing and family is such a significant part of his life. You see quite clearly that as a family you share something.
The colour might change over time, but the genes won’t. In my own family, my grandad in Paisely was ginger until the day he died. I remember being in hospital when he was asleep on his bed just a few days before he died and seeing the sunlight catching his ginger hair. It’s just incredible how it endures. For me it is a very visual reminder of who you are and where you come from.
LP: Could you tell us about the time you spent in Russia while making the series?
KD: I had seen the Russia hotspot on the map and I managed to work out roughly that it was in the Upper Volga. There is a city nearby that I had been to before on assignment to document people in rehab from drug addiction and HIV support, so I knew the city, which is called Perm. It was the nearest big city to this area, so I went there and connected with a local guy who helped me organise it. He thought it was just a bit silly, but I told him to he was going to get inundated with emails. And as soon as we put it out on VK, which is the equivalent of Facebook, we just got hundreds of people getting in touch. I was later able to exhibit portraits of normal Russians side-by-side with local gingers as part of a show in Inverness. A mum came along to that show with her two daughters and it turned out the mum was from Perm and living in Nairn.
LP: Do you have plans for this project in the future?
KD: I pulled it together as a book, from Jamaica across to Russia and everything in between. Enough to make the point that we are connected. But there are a couple of ginger projects that I would like to do which I have been planning for.
LP: The more you delve in, the more you’ll find, and I think that’s what is so great about it.
KD: That’s it, and it seems superficial because it’s hair but it’s a story of our DNA and our history. It keeps me going because as an artist you’ve got to have an interest in what’s in front of you and be inspired by it and it constantly does.
These aren’t professional models, these are everyday people and yet when you spend time with them and you put them in that setting, you start to see the inherent worth and beauty in each person and the differences between us and the commonalities. So, I have found it interesting, and I hope to continue.
Welcoming new artists to the collection
We want to show you who lives in Scotland today and Art Fund are helping us do that.
Census year is an opportunity to think about who isn’t in our collection. We know some of you don’t see yourself in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. We want to change that.
There are lots of new acquisitions in Counted: Scotland's Census 2022. We hope they give you a sense of the wonderful range of people living in Scotland.
We’ve worked with photographers from a range of backgrounds. For many of them, it’s the first time they have had their work shown in a gallery.
We’ve got plans to do more. We’ll be commissioning new portraits over the next few years. We’re thinking about what else we can do to make it a Portrait Gallery for everyone.
We’d love to hear your views. Get in touch by emailing [email protected]org
Gingers by Kieran Dodds (paperback)
Gingers is a photography book where Scottish photographer Kieran Dodds, with a series of beautiful portraits of gingers around the world, from America through Europe, on to the Middle East and Asia, explores and celebrates the flow of DNA across cultures and generations.
The little book of gingers by Kieran Dodds (hardback)
Pocket-size book of photography collection from the original Gingers book, including new portraits, by Scottish photographer Kieran Dodds. The little book of gingers explores and celebrates the flow of DNA across cultures and generations with a series of beautiful portraits of gingers around the world.