Black women’s hair has often been misunderstood and only recently has it been given its due in the mainstream beauty world, said Sandroa Chicago-based photographer whose new book puts black hairstyles on a pedestal.
Crowns: my hair, my soul, my freedom been published this spring and is full of vibrant portraits and more. Besides Sandro’s work, contributors included actress Angela Bassett, who wrote the foreword, and poet and Chicago native Patricia Smith, who wrote Unleashed siesta for the book.
Sandro created the book as a gift to the black community around the world, he told WBEZ Reset.
“[The book is] celebrating the diversity, artistry and power of black women’s hair,” he said. “This is a project that shines a light on the many ways that black hair [is presented] and how women embrace their hair.
As a white man from Elgin, Sandro said he was inspired by his wife, Claude-Aline, who is black and told Sandro about his struggles in the corporate world, where she had to follow rules that often discriminate against black hair.
“Claude was my first inspiration, you know, and then together we started noticing all over the city of Chicago, the corporate laws started to become more lenient to the way black men and black women could wear their hair at work,” Sandro said. “We started scouting out women with the most amazing hairstyles, whether it was pearls, braids or cornrows, or wearing them au natural or wearing wigs.”
Sandro said he wanted to show the world that this shift in how black women wear their hair is really happening.
He said the idea turned into a project four or five years ago to EXPO Chicago, where it received a strong response from attendees. Among the nearly 400 women Sandro photographed for the project, he said he heard stories of insults, discrimination at work and being kicked out of school for wearing braids or beads.
After EXPO Chicago, Sandro decided to take the project to South Africa, where he took more photos of women’s hairstyles.
Crowns: my hair, my soul, my freedom contains 140 portraits. The women are shown with black paint on their faces and upper bodies, and bright splashes of color in the background.
One of the reasons for presenting his subjects in this way is Sandro’s admiration for the artist’s style. Kerry James Marshall.
But Sandro said the presentation was also made to recognize the range of skin tones in black women and men.
“And within that range of black people, there’s an awful lot of prejudice in the black community…It again pains me greatly to know that within black culture itself, there’s so much animosity towards color,” Sandro said. “I really wanted to even out everyone here…and I think that black black makes each of the very beautiful people that much more striking.”
To further even out each of the subjects in the portraits, no clothing can be seen – just the subjects shoulders up – which, according to Sandro, means viewers cannot judge any of the subjects by what they are wearing, so that the focus is almost entirely on the hairstyles.
The name of the book is based on the CROWN ACT, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” and was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in March. The bill has yet to pass the Senate, but President Joe Biden has strongly supported it, according to NRP.
Sandro said he showed each portrait subject what he was doing with his project to gauge their reactions, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“I think they were all ready to get up on that pedestal and say, ‘Look at me, I look good with my hair no matter how I wear it,'” he said.
Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Am here @biancacseke1.