Kieran Dodds on ‘ginger’ identities and his Panos print ‘Dasha Shipitcina’

The first photo I remember taking was of a raccoon in Edmonton Zoo in Canada. It was a little instamatic square, and when I pressed the shutter, the raccoon looked towards me. In that moment, I was so excited at having captured something, so amazed, that I ran off to tell my dad. That is the same impulse that drives me now. If I see things that are amazing or that shock me, I want to convey that to others.

Sharing has become very trite because of social media platforms where you actually put no effort into it but for me it’s a crystallisation of all the time and effort that goes into a shot. You won’t be able to find a picture unless you understand what you are seeing. The photographic skill is being able to convey your emotion and research into something which is visually coherent. The process doesn’t end with the making of the picture, the completion is the sharing of it.

It was a year before the Scottish independence referendum I started working on the project that this print comes from, about Gingers. I was looking at stories about Scottish identity and the gingers was initially a challenge to myself to do a portrait series. It was a simple idea. I realised I was a cliche of national identity, being pale and ginger. As I started reading and researching, I realised it’s a global trait. It seems so superficial, doing a project about hair, but of course it’s rooted in our DNA. It’s a history of humanity and a travelling, wandering species.

On a trip to a National Gallery, I went into this whole room full of paintings where the central character was ginger. They were biblical scenes, so they were set in the Middle East and the people in them had glowing, it wasn’t gold, it was ginger hair. I realised how the artists were obsessed with the colour, that fed into the way I approached it as well. So although it is a personal story as I’m Ginger, I’m also thinking about how that colour has resonated through cultural and art history. It gave me a language to approach it. I used a studio setup referencing a Scottish enlightenment painter, David Martin, with a brown backdrop and one light with a soft box and I’ve carried that around the world, just that simple setup. So this photo of Dascha Shipsina at the back of a photo studio in Perm, Russia, has the same background, the same light as images shot in Jamaica, in a villa on the beach, or in Inverness in a tiny little disused shop, and that continuity makes it work.

After the book came out I got so many emails from people around the world, an Iranian barber in DC, people in Kashmir, saying, I’ve got ginger hair, I love this project, the response has been just amazing. The fixer who was helping me in Russia, kind of humoured me when I explained the project to him. I said, just watch out, because you’re going to get inundated if it’s anything like here. And so he put on VK, which is like Facebook, and within hours he had loads of people getting in touch and a huge spreadsheet of names. So we had a couple of days photographing lots of people. Sometimes you tune out a bit during a long shoot and then people start to do their own thing. Dascha started sorting out her hair, this incredible volume of hair. I just loved the sheer volume of it, it takes on a personality.

I think the project resonates because it’s a part of your identity that you don’t necessarily rave about. But it’s such a significant part of your identity, because it’s literally crowning your head. And it’s so rare so I think ginger people like the idea of like collecting together and being part of something bigger. I think that’s a very human idea, we want to be part of something bigger.

Because of my background in ecology, most of my work is about culture and the environment, and how landscape tends to be the crucible of culture. This project fits into that in some ways. It’s about human beings distributed about the earth. You know, why? Why are these people with this trait here? Why has that happened? It’s about migration and adaptation.

At the beginning of my career I spent four years working for press and newspapers in Scotland and that was my training in the craft and the process of taking information and packaging it in a way that is understandable and beautiful. I did a story on the bats of Kasanka that won a World Press and I went freelance off the back of that. It wasn’t until five years later that I took the decision to centre my work on the long form projects, any commissions have to fit around that, until then I was fitting long term stuff around commissions.

Chipping away even a few days a month over years, produces something which has resonance and then an afterlife. You get a new depth and you find new layers, but it’s got to be interesting. I think I couldn’t have done it this long unless I find interesting things about it. I feel projects latch on to you. You know what your interests are. And you’ll be looking around and then something grips you. My interest in environmental issues, and existential issues, these kind of questions of being and doing are always in my mind.

Dasha Shipitcina

from Gingers

Perm, Russia. 2017

In Scotland, one in eight Scots in Kieran Dodds' homeland are, like him, ginger. Perm - a fitting name - lies on the Kama river upstream from the Udmurt Republic in Russia, an area known as the heart of the world's other great ginger enclave. Ginger looms large in imaginations far beyond its heartlands. Walking around National Galleries Kieran was struck by the disproportionate number of paintings depicting ginger hair compared to its prevalence in the population outside. For some artists it is almost an obsession. Titian painted so many gingers he has a type of red named after him. From Boticelli and Cranach through to the pre-Raphaelites and Gustav Klimt, ginger and gingers have entranced artists for hundreds of years.

Kieran’s study Gingers transects eleven time zones, from the Americas through Europe, on to the Middle East and Asia. The people who bear the genes, who carry the hair, have unique histories. They occupy different political regions. But they are united by a golden – well, coppery, or rusty, as the Russians would say – thread: the flow of DNA across cultures and generations, a reminder that all people are made of the same substance, and sometimes it shows.


About Kieran Dodds

Kieran Dodds is a non-fiction photographer known internationally for his research-driven photo stories and portraiture. His personal work looks at the interplay of environment and culture, tracing global events through daily lives.

A trained ecologist, Kieran is interested in ‘questions of being and doing’ ; in how humans live and how landscape functions as a crucible of culture. He has received grants to document Tibetan culture in flux, as pastoral nomads are resettled in highland China, and the role of spiritual beliefs in the global conservation movement. Living in Scotland, he has also focused on its recent political upheaval using the landscape to consider depictions and realities of Scottish identity through the centuries. 

Kieran’s work is held by the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland and has been shown at the Scottish Parliament and the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. His first book ‘Gingers’ was released in November 2020 closely followed by a softcover second edition. The book was one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Photography books of 2020.