Natasha Culzac, photographed by Michelle Marshall as part of the MC1R project
How would you describe a typical redhead? Do you think of Julianne Moore: light skinned and beautiful, with rust-colored hair and a flush of crimson through her porcelain cheeks? Or do you think of Ed Sheeran?
Either way, it's likely the redhead in your mind is white. Red hair is mainly considered the preserve of northern Europe, a Celtic-Germanic trait. This is what resulted in London-based photographer Michelle Marshall's quest to capture as many Afro Caribbean redheads as possible as part of her project, MC1R.
MC1R , or Melanocortin 1 receptor if you're feeling fancy, is the gene responsible for red hair. Mutations in it can cause various degrees of pigmentation. It'll either work "properly," causing your hair to get darker, or it will become dysfunctional, not activate, and then fail to turn red pigment to brown, causing a build-up of red pigment and thus, red hair.
"To make sense of what's around us we put people in boxes—it's a natural reflex and is not intended in a malicious way," says Lyon-born Michelle, who finds her participants on social media, through recommendations or in passing in a packed shopping center. "I'm hoping that with these pictures that reflex changes a bit."
It's estimated that in Scotland, 13 percent of the population have ginger hair. Compare this with the world's population, where 1 to 2 percent is thought to be redhead, and redheads from ethnic minorities are even rarer.
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However, there's no concrete data and a distinct lack of research on the ethnicity behind those with red hair. A quirk of nature it might seem, but the heritage of those with the distinctive trait doesn't point to just one isolated corner of the earth—parentage ranges from Brazil to Jamaica to Ghana.
Both parents need to be carriers of the recessive MC1R gene in order for a child to be a redhead, so I wondered whether it had been passed down and across through centuries of human migration, the slave trade and even Irish/Scottish indentured servitude in the British Caribbean in the 17th century.
"During Cromwell's reign thousands of Catholic Irish were deported to the 'West Indies' as indentured servants, and quite a number of people from England's Celtic fringe might have signed such indentures—more or less—voluntarily," Stephan Palmié, co-editor of The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its Peoples, told me.
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Barry Starr, a geneticist from Stanford University, took this further: "Red hair carriers in the Caribbean and Africa are for the most part due to migration or gene flow."
After all, in countries with equatorial or sunnier climes, natural selection wouldn't exactly favor physical features such as easily harmed light skin.
"The last evidence I saw, was that there was a strong selection pressure against changes in the MC1R gene that cause it not to work in regions with a lot of sunlight—think Africa," Dr. Starr explained.
"This probably has to do with the pale skin that comes with red hair. This means that even if an MC1R mutation did spontaneously appear previously in African populations, as it did multiple times in Europe, it did not spread and eventually petered out."
Dr. George Busby from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics agrees. He says that the red hair and freckles is the likely result of the historical interactions between Europeans and Africans in the formation of the Caribbean populations—most notably with Brits, as the Spanish and Portuguese went to South America.
George states: "This might also explain why you occasionally see red hair on a black Caribbean person who has two black parents. By chance alone, it might be that they are both carrying a European mutation which has come together in their child."
Most of Michelle's subjects have been in the UK, though she's had a lot of interest in the US and some in mainland Europe. "I've got the whole of London on this," she laughs, when describing her army of spotters.
She says the reaction to her project has been overwhelmingly positive. "The only thing is, a beautiful picture doesn't always relate what it's like to be different.
"There's a flipside to being different: it's not always accepted. Beautiful photography serves one purpose, but in the context of daily life people may not have that reaction."
And she's right. For me, growing up tall, mixed-raced, with thick, frizzy ginger hair, in a predominantly white, working-class seaside town was not the ticket. At 13 years old I was buying skin whitening cream from Boots to pulverize the freckles and at 14, during my Slipknot phase at the turn of the millennium, was violently straightening my newly-dyed black hair. Now, though, I couldn't care less and relish being unique.
One woman who has been in touch with Michelle says her 11-year-old sister is having a hard time because she doesn't fit in, and that she's trying to persuade the youngster to take part in the project to boost her confidence.
"A lot of people have been feeling quite isolated," Michelle says. "I got a message from one boy who said, 'I didn't realize there were so many of us'—I've not even shot 50 people. But the fact that he was able to see a cluster of people that matched his identify and could relate to that is quite positive."
Francis Johnson, a 24-year-old born and bred Bristolian, said: "I never thought to think of myself as different to other kids but... I was chronically made aware of it at times through bullying, unfortunately, as some people just didn't understand my afro hair, my freckles and birthmarks. It also made me question a lot of times what I was 'about' and the true meaning behind my make-up."
"My mother and her mother are both redheads with family deriving from Scotland, through the Celtic bloodline you could say, but looking back deep enough to the ancestry of Celtic people it can go as far back as the Viking era," the dancer and performer said.
Natasha as a child
"On my father's side, my grandfather was also pale-skinned and referred to as a 'white Jamaican' with green eyes, but prominent black features."
Coral Kwayie, a 23-year-old creative and stylist, explained that "growing up in Tunbridge Wells was good, it's a nice area... very white."
"I went to school with the same people from nursery through to primary and secondary school so I didn't realize I was different in that sense," she says. Coral's sister and half-brother are also ginger, so the gene definitely runs down her Ghanaian father's side at least.
"I never hated being ginger, to be honest," she adds. "I have never been bullied or made to feel bad about it apart from this guy once at secondary school who shouted 'ginger' at me on the bus and my friend hit him with a tennis racket and that was that. I have never and would never dye it. I like my hair color."
West London-born Rosemarie Easom, 35, said: "I didn't like having red hair growing up... [but] I don't mind it now as I guess it's the main thing I'm complimented on.
"Most people assume I dye it, even people that have known me for years."
Given the lack of research on the subject it's impossible to establish the historical prevalence of ethnic gingers. Michelle's subjects are predominantly mixed-raced, which in the context of the UK's mushrooming mixed-raced population makes one think that we could only become more prominent.
And there has never been a better time to be ginger. "The only annoying thing," as Coral says, "is that it's becoming fashionable."
Take the new magazine dedicated to redheads, also called MC1R. It has just published its first English-language edition profiling international redhead-specific projects from Phillip Gätz, Jens Kaesemann and Thomas Knights—the last of whom was behind the hugely successful "Red Hot" series, which aimed to redefine the ginger male stereotype. Thomas has just also published Red Hot's first ever female calendar, which along with the sale of its male version, raises money for anti-bullying charities.
Then there's Redhead Day UK, which now in its third year is taking place in London on 12 September—the previous incarnations were held in Manchester. The event states: "Redheads have been ridiculed and taunted for too long. Literally, it's been centuries. So it's time that gingers made a stand." They've even got an awards ceremony happening on the day called the MOGOs.
As for the photographic project, Michelle hopes to garner the interest of geneticists because she wants the "science side" to run alongside it: "I want some facts so I can make a final statement," she said. She hopes to have an exhibition some time in the near future, perhaps part funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
"I want to stir the perception that most of us have of a redhead as a white Caucasian individual potentially of Celtic descent," She told VSCO earlier this year. "While there seems to be an underlying Irish/Scottish connection to the MCR1 gene in the occurrence of red hair, I am not sure that being 'ginger' still only means being Scottish, Irish, Welsh, or even being white."
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