Why One Woman Photographs Barbershops in Every City She Visits
And the frame-worthy images she’s captured.
In recent years, travel photography posted on social media has become—to put it bluntly—monotonous. Take a quick scroll through your timeline now and you'll likely find several shots of a colorful floor tile, a vibrant wall, or the obligatory snapshot of the wing of a plane during take-off. Fortunately, there are exceptions. Between swipes, a non-conforming traveler captures unexpected moments and objects that defy all trends. Minu Chawla, founder of RoadsWellTraveled (a site that curates global art and the stories of the artisans who make them), is one. Her compilation of hashtags on her Instagram account include #moleskinesecrets where she shares her thoughts while on-the-go, #shinyreflectivesurfaces where she captures stunning imagery seen in various reflections, and our favorite: #infiltrating barbershops, where she documents intimate moments in barbers’ chairs around the world.
Though based in Dubai, Chawla’s photos span from Cuba to Qatar. “About six or seven years ago, I studied myself and estimated how long I can stay without being on the road,” she says. Turns out, she calculated she could only go about four months before embarking on a new voyage. “I am as happy with quick trips to unassuming destinations (little-known towns and nameless villages that never figure on people's travel lists), as I am with those coveted, bucket-list kind of journeys.” In 2016 alone, Chawla took two long trips to Cuba and northern Norway, and shorter getaways to Oman, Qatar, Germany, and India. Here, she steps from behind the lens to share more about her travel experiences, and the lessons learned in barbershops along the way.
What inspired you to found RoadsWellTraveled?
RoadsWellTraveled was admittedly a valiant effort at creating my dream job after not finding one in the traditional working world. It was a culmination of everything I love and aspire for in life—travel, history, self-expression, exploration, and artisan traditions. It helped bring to the forefront a group of people that deserve to be recognized, but aren't. Why are artisans and their work reduced to souvenirs when they are actually capable of creating masterpieces? Why must these crafts and traditions be admired solely in museums and not in homes, even though many of them are still being practiced? These thoughts had haunted me for many years. I chose to address them through RoadsWellTraveled when I had the opportunity.
You have a unique way of capturing a region’s most special elements, even in the smallest details, and summing them up with such insightful captions. What is your mission in sharing your travel experiences with your followers?
Thank you! I'm a believer of immersive travel. I would love to see more and more people skip or augment the usual, expected itineraries and must-see lists with a different approach to travel. If I can perpetuate that thought through accounts of my own travel, I would be quite pleased with myself. Here's an example: During my trip to Croatia (my first solo trip 10 years ago), I asked the guy who was minding the hostel check-in desk for his favorite place in Zadar. He told me about an island across the channel, where his grandfather was born. There is an abandoned church on top of the hill there, he said. The next morning, I took the ferry there with an American I had befriended the evening before. I stood at the edge of the hill in this church, with tears in my eyes. It was that beautiful. And there was not a soul there besides my new friend and I, and two public workers there to repair an electricity tower. (We hitched a ride in their pickup truck on our way up.)
With our most recent issue on Havana still top of mind, one of your photo captions during your trip to Cuba rang true for us: “An experience stripped of all other trappings save the purest forms of human nature.” Can you speak to this a bit more?
The best part of my trip to Cuba was being able to zero in on the joie-de-vivre, and partake in it. I love visiting lands that have emerged, or are in the process of emerging from strife. There is a certain humility about the people of these lands, and a persistent gratitude for life. Likewise in Cuba, people value more and derive happiness out of whatever they have, be it material possessions or community and friendship. We saw it in the guy who had beautifully and proudly maintained his 1957 Chevy to prime condition. We saw it at a restaurant one evening, in an old woman of over 80, who stepped on stage to sing with the band that was performing just because it was her favorite song. We saw it in the common practice of state-assisted hitchhiking where policemen hail down cars for hitchhikers to get into! It is the ultimate acknowledgement and acceptance of the country's limited means, and then a smart attempt at finding solutions to problems collectively faced by the community. I bet the Cubans' favorite song is “With a little help from my friends.”
What inspired you to start the #infiltratingbarbershops series?
I love being in places that I am not expected to be in or doing things that I am not expected to do. It comes from a place of adventure, non-conformism and even feminism—every part of me that questions and challenges norm. A few years ago, I was walking through a part of Delhi, photographing the street art there. When we were walking past a small, dimly-lit barbershop, I saw my reflection in the barber's mirror. I didn't belong there. It could never be a place I or anyone like me could be found in. I loved how out of place I was there, yet I could easily insert myself in that setting. So I did, and I continued doing that in places I visited after.
How have the barbershop owners/clients responded to you capturing moments in the shops?
It is always curiosity that gets me the permission, but also chivalry from the other side, which I am always very grateful for. However, there have been times when I have been asked not to take photos, either by the barber himself, or one of his clients. Sometimes they just ask me not to post it on Facebook, and I am totally fine with that. There has never been any aggression or flying tempers.
What have you learned about men’s needs to keep up with their hair?
After having visited many barbershops and witnessing much more than the usual haircut, I find it unfair when vanity is attached mostly to women. I've come across many make-shift barbershops, either on the porch of the barber's home or under a tree, using the tree trunk to mount the mirror.
Continue to follow Chawla's #infiltratingbarbershops series on Instagram @minuchawla.