This article originally appeared on i-D UK.
For over a decade, Irina Werning has been traveling up and down Argentina to find and photograph women and girls with super-long hair. Her project “Dear Long Hair” pays homage to a tradition borne out of a culture that believes that to cut off your hair is to cut off your thoughts.
It’s not the first time she’s travelled for a passion project — Werning’s most famous series so far, “Back to the Future,” saw her travel to 48 countries to recreate photos from people’s pasts. Her uncanny recreations of awkward yearbook photos, snaps of babies bathing in sinks, and family portraits went viral.
Werning’s eye for intricate details is proven again in “Dear Long Hair.” Strands come alive in gusts of wind, are taped to a wall like sunbeams, or become entangled with a cactus. Together, the photos tell the story of a rich tradition that’s alive and well in Argentina — at least for now.
What sparked your interest in people with long hair?
I was in the north of Argentina, in the Andes, where a lot of Indigenous communities live. I was doing a project on small schools in the middle of the mountains, and I kept photographing these girls with long hair. I was there for six months, and I was really sad to go home because I wanted to continue photographing these long-haired women and girls, so I started this new project and started searching for them in the whole country.
How long have you been working on "Dear Long Hair" now?
12 years! It’s very hard to find these women because they usually don’t have their hair out, because it’s so heavy and uncomfortable. So it takes me a long time.
How do you find them?
I put ads on Facebook and I find them in places throughout Argentina and I travel to meet them and take pictures of them wherever they are. Sometimes I go back to the north of Argentina and I stay in a town and I put ads in different towns with my phone number, or I organize long hair competitions.
What do you write in these ads?
Searching for long-haired women or girls, longer than to the knee, for an artistic photographic project.
And so people call you and say "hi, I have long hair, I saw your ad?"
Yes! They send me a message, and I ask them to send me pictures, first, of the length. And then, if it’s very long, I go to them.
So for them it’s exciting to have their photo taken and have their hair appreciated by someone?
Yes! As soon as I show them the project they really understand, because for them long hair is very important. So once they see that I’ve been searching for these women and celebrating them, they want to be a part of it. I usually first ask them a lot about themselves, and try to photograph them in their natural environments, or with something that reveals their personality. Because, in most of these pictures, you can’t even see their face, but now I’m starting to show more of their faces. I don’t know why, perhaps I got bored of not showing their faces.
Did you always know about the cultural meaning behind them having such long hair?
When I began doing this project I didn’t know the significance, because it’s not something that I read or that someone told me. So I would ask my subjects, "why do you have long hair?" and no one said anything that had to do with a sociological aspect, they always gave personal reasons for having long hair. The young girls were always saying, "because my grandmother looks after it, and she also used to have it," and older women were always saying "I’ve just always had it long. I like it."
So I’m questioning, like, this has to have a reason! Because I lived for eight years in the UK and when I came back here I started noticing that it’s a very Latin thing to have long hair. I even had long hair as a kid! I never questioned it before. So I started researching and I learned that in Indigenous traditions in Argentina, hair represents thoughts, and life. So people in Indigenous communities would not cut their hair, or they would only cut their hair when someone died.
Our societies here in South America are so mixed that people don’t even realize — because it’s been going on for years and passes from generation to generation; it’s invisible, in a way. So I started realizing that this has to do with our hybrid societies, this mix of Indigenous communities. That’s the reason why, in the north, I find a lot more women with long hair. Because they are coming directly from Indigenous communities.
It feels like it’s important to celebrate and document these traditions, especially as they’re maybe starting to be lost?
Yeah, I mean, in these towns that I’ve been going to every couple of years for 12 years, in the past seven or eight years I’ve started seeing kids with these modern hairstyles, with half their hair cut off. Styles like you would see anywhere in the world, because of globalization. So I think we are slowly starting to lose this tradition. But you still see a lot of girls with really long hair. And the parents look after it, even if they don’t have money for so much conditioner.
Have you learned any good hair maintenance tips from them?
Yes! They boil water with rosemary and then rinse their hair with that. You don’t even need conditioner, and it gets really shiny. You should try it!
I will! In all of your photos their hair does look so healthy and shiny. They obviously take very good care of it.
Yeah, even in rural communities that are full of dust, they look after their hair a lot. But I think also, the length of your hair is genetic. For instance, I could never have my hair to the floor, it stops growing at some point. Everyone has a length, genetically, that they can reach. And these Indigenous communities genetically have good hair. It’s very thick and they have a lot of it, so they can reach longer lengths.
We’ve talked about what having long hair means to these girls, but what do these photos mean to you?
I usually relate to small stories and things that perhaps someone doesn’t even notice. Especially people living here don’t notice that women have their hair longer than women in most Western countries. So I think that it’s a very small story, but it has a very deep meaning that has to do with culture and is something that will probably end up disappearing. There are some cultural aspects that are visible to society, and some that are even invisible, and I think this is invisible. But this is a very small story with something really big behind it, that talks about our society and how our society is mixed with Indigenous communities. So, in this way, I think it’s part of our culture.
That’s beautiful. I’m sure these photos would make an incredible book! Do you have plans to put one together?
I would love to make a book but I think I will wait maybe 10 more years, because I don’t want to finish it!