Black women’s hair has often been misunderstood and has only recently been given its due in the world of mainstream beauty, said Sandro, a Chicago-based photographer whose new book puts Black hairstyles on a pedestal.
Crowns: My Hair, My Soul, My Freedom was published this spring and is packed with vibrant portraits and more. Along with Sandro’s work, contributors included actress Angela Bassett, who wrote the foreword, as well as poet and Chicago native Patricia Smith, who wrote Nap Unleashed for the book.
Sandro created the book as a gift to the Black community across the world, he told WBEZ’s Reset.
“[The book is] celebrating diversity, artistry and the power of Black women’s hair,” he said. “It’s a project about highlighting the many, many ways in which 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 her struggles in the corporate world, where she had to follow rules that often discriminated against Black hair.
“Claude was my initial inspiration, you know, and then together we began to notice throughout the city of Chicago, corporate laws began to become more lenient towards how Black men and Black women could wear their hair to work,” Sandro said. “We started spotting women with just the most amazing hairstyles, whether it would be beads or braids or cornrows, or wearing it natural or wearing wigs.”
Sandro said he wanted to show the world that this change in how Black women wear their hair is really happening.
He said the idea turned into a project four or five years ago for EXPO Chicago, where he received a strong response from attendees. Among the nearly 400 women Sandro photographed for the project, he said he heard stories about name-calling, job discrimination and being sent home from 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 features 140 portraits. The women are presented with black paint over their faces and upper bodies, and bright pops of color in the background.
One reason for presenting his subjects this way is because of Sandro’s admiration for the style of artist Kerry James Marshall.
But Sandro said the presentation was also done to acknowledge the range of skin tones among Black women and men.
“And within that range of black, there is a tremendous amount of prejudice in the Black community… That again brings me to a lot of pain to know that within Black culture itself, there’s so much animosity towards color,” Sandro said. “I wanted to really equalize everybody here … and I do think that this black black makes every single one of the very beautiful people even more striking.”
To further equalize each of the subjects of the portraits, no clothes can be seen — just the subjects’ shoulders on upwards — which Sandro said means viewers cannot judge any of the subjects by what they are wearing, so the focus is nearly 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 back in March. The bill has not yet passed the Senate, but President Joe Biden expressed strong support for it, according to NPR.
Sandro said he showed every portrait subject what he was doing with his project to gauge their reactions, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“I think that they were all ready to stand up on that pedestal and say, ‘Look at me, I am beautiful with my hair no matter how I’m wearing it,’ ” he said.
Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @biancacseke1.