South African Township Barbershops & Salons

Published On:

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Simon Weller

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Simon Weller is a photographer and author of the book 'South African Township Barbershops & Salons' published by MBP. Simon was born in England and started his career in the late nineties as a cover designer for Penguin Books and HarperCollins in London. Since 2001, he has worked as photographer for clients including Bloomsbury Books, EMI Records, Toyota and Wired magazine. His photographs are represented by Getty Images and Corbis. He is currently based in Northern California, USA.


On an early 2009 trip through Southern Africa, Simon Weller, a British Photographer, was struck and fascinated by the colorful barbershops which seemed pervasive across the course of his journey. He found one at almost every street corner, situated in either an old shipping container or a ramshackle structure. Most of them were adorned with hand painted artworks and homemade signs with names like Let’s Fix It Barbershop, Try Again Hair Shop and Look Alive Salon.

Simon's fascination with the subject took him back to South Africa in late 2009 in a bid to, as he puts it, "simply document barbershop art". However, he came to another realization very quickly - that his project had the potential to document something that hadn't been covered before, or perhaps scantily - the positive aspects of lives in the township areas of South Africa. This is against the backdrop of negative perceptions about life in the township areas.

Hiring local guides, Simon worked his way through the various township areas, interacting with the locals, spending nights in local hostels, eating and drinking shebeens with locals and even going to house parties - a totally immersive experience, contrary to the widespread notion that these were dangerous places for white people.

The result of this adventure is a book, SOUTH AFRICAN TOWNSHIP BARBERSHOPS & SALONS (Mark Batty, Available from Amazon ).  As Steven Heller sees it in his "Summer Reading" section of the New York Times, "the author handles this subject with due respect and awe". However, Heller goes on to say, "I can’t help feeling there is a bit of unintended exploitation. This is not the first book of vernacular signs by photographers or designers who are smitten by naïve virtues. Historical appreciations are appropriate, but virtually all the work in this volume is by living craftspeople and artists. I wonder whether having their signs reproduced in a book is payment enough for their labors."

Personally, I think the last part of Heller's critique is a little off the mark since these artworks and signs are not synonymous with commercial paintings with any attributable licensing rights. Rather, they are akin to everyday works of art seen in public places, free for anyone to enjoy or photograph. I will leave you to make your own judgement.

Simon is currently looking for sponsorship to take his show on the road, back to where it all started - with a traveling exhibition of the works in none other than repurposed shipping containers. A worthy effort.

Victor Acquah - africanlens 

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