Collecting human hair in Bangalore for re-sale as wigs and hair extensions

Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

I took this photograph in the TC Palya slum in Bangalore, in India, earlier this year. Rosita Boland, the Irish Times features writer, and I were investigating the origins of a multibillion-euro industry: the collection of human hair for resale as wigs and hair extensions in the salons of the West. These women had been out collecting hair from the brushes and combs of women in ordinary households.

Depending on how much hair is collected from each home, a small item is given in exchange, such as a hair clip or a tin cup. Back in the slum, the hair is then washed and sorted, and sold on within the slum, to men called aggregators. A kilo of hair sold in a slum makes €31. By the time it reaches the West, its price has soared to €3,000.

The woman in this picture is named Gangamma. She was sorting hair that she and other women had recently collected.

It was important to light the women’s faces properly and highlight the colours of their sarongs. The hair, which was central to the story, had to be prominent, too, and carefully lit

I gave myself time to watch the women work before taking my camera out of my bag. There is little time to shoot in such searing heat. Digital cameras have a tendency to just shut down, and battery life can also significantly reduce. The first signs are when none of the camera readings make sense even though they are set manually: it’s an awful feeling and very difficult to remedy in a location where there is no electricity. With the sun high in the sky, it was obvious that I would need a flash and that I had to work quickly.

I’m usually reluctant to use flash, because it’s distracting to the person being photographed. In this case it was important that I light their faces properly and highlight the colours of their sarongs. The hair, which was central to the story, had to be prominent in the image, and carefully lit.

I was lucky. I got this shot just before my camera shut down from overheating.

  • A special magazine has been produced with today’s Irish Times. It contains a selection of various photographs chosen by photographers as their Picture of the Year.

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