When she finally cut her hair, Antonella Bordon had trouble sleeping. At the age of 12, her first haircut meant more to her than a simple change of style.
For most of her childhood, Bordon’s silky hair ran all the way down her back to her calves, such a deep brown it looked like a black mane. Her mother and sister would comb it every day, rubbing the locks with rosemary oil, and helping her style it in a way to keep her cool during the hot Argentinian summer.
“The first night after I cut my hair I felt like I was missing something, almost like I’d lost something,” she says, her face now framed by a short bob.
Though she’d always understood her hair to be key to her identity, the past two years have taught Bordon to see what is really important to her. When her school stayed shut through the pandemic, leaving her stuck in her family home just outside Buenos Aires, learning on Zoom via her mother’s mobile phone, she dreamed of the day it would all go back to normal; the day she would join her friends in the classroom and school corridors again. She made a promise to herself: when the day finally came, she would cut her nearly floor‑length locks right off.
Buenos Aires-based photographer Irina Werning used to have very long hair as a child, too. She noticed this style was typically Latin American only after living abroad for years. “Sometimes you have to leave your country to understand your country,” she says.
Werning has been documenting Argentina’s long-haired girls for 15 years, exploring why women and girls here keep their hair longer than in northern hemisphere countries. Most of her subjects respond with personal reasons: that it’s looked after by their mother, or that their grandmother wore her hair long.
But Werning has come to understand that long hair also creates a connection to Latin America’s indigenous roots, and to communities who believe that hair is sacred, an extension of one’s self.
“Traditions and culture rely on oral history, passing from generation to generation, sometimes without much explanation. Here, the mother braids the child’s hair, looks after her hair and it’s become a cultural thing,” Werning says.
She began photographing Bordon’s long hair three years ago and continued documenting her after the pandemic reached Argentina. During this time, the photographs became not just about the hair itself, they told the story of Bordon’s experience: that of a young girl in a country during one of the longest government-enforced lockdowns in the world.
“I always thought if I cut my hair something would be missing, but when school disappeared because of the lockdown, that’s exactly how I felt,” Bordon says. A huge part of her world was missing. Although this project began as a study of hair, when Bordon told Werning she was finally going to cut hers off, the photographer was pleased to hear the news — it meant there was progress.
“I wanted her to be able to go back to school, so I actually wanted her to cut her hair, which was contradictory to my project,” Werning says. It had been 18 months.
She photographed Bordon throughout lockdown and during her return to school. The subsequent series, La Promesa (the Promise), has transformed from a story about hair to one of the education crisis and the inequality gap exposed by the pandemic.
Schools were forced to close across the world when the Covid-19 crisis hit, but across Latin America they remained shut for the longest period, as the region struggled to control the spread of the virus. Children in Latin America are said to have lost about three months’ more class time than their contemporaries elsewhere, and more than 3 million may never return to school.
In Argentina, the issue of education throughout the pandemic became particularly politicised, exposing the country’s deepening inequalities. More than 40% of the population are estimated to be living in poverty, a figure exacerbated by the nationwide lockdowns. Children in low-income areas missed out on free meals at school, and many were left isolated by patchy internet or little or no access to technology. According to a Buenos Aires-based thinktank, one in four primary school students who live in Argentina’s poorer settlements abandoned their schooling in 2020.
“Remote learning is not for everyone because some people don’t have a mobile phone, there are internet problems, and some schools just send the parents exercises through WhatsApp,” says Werning.
Schools in Buenos Aires were able to open at least three months before the rest of the country when the city refused to abide by government orders to keep them shut as Covid numbers rose. This was particularly tough for Bordon: because she lives less than a kilometre outside the city’s border, her school remained shut.
Werning captures an inquisitive girl constrained by lockdown and isolated from her friends. “I wanted to show her life in lockdown, which was very limited,” says Werning. “She lives in a very small house, 30 sq metres (322 sq ft) that she shares with her parents, who emigrated from Paraguay. They lost their jobs during lockdown, so they opened a shop in their home.
“I showed her doing Zoom classes. I shot her in moments where she was very anxious for her future, I photographed her helping at the shop. I photographed her in very limited situations because she was not seeing her friends or doing anything; but her hair was the protagonist of everything.”
In the end, Bordon missed 260 days of school. She was fortunate in the sense that she was living in a household where education was a priority — her mother always made her phone available so Bordon could study.
But “sometimes Zoom didn’t work properly”, says Bordon, “so it was impossible to learn, and the truth is I didn’t understand many things, I didn’t feel a connection with the school subjects. When I’m in school I like it, I understand more, we can ask questions.
“Lockdown was difficult, so when we started school after the quarantine, I wanted a change and I wanted to cut my hair. I felt like a different person as I had been out of school for a year and a half.” When Bordon’s school fully reopened in September, she had her hair cut at Werning’s home surrounded by her father, sister and mother, who cried while they took turns to snip at her daughter’s long hair. It now sits in a bag on Werning’s table, waiting to be donated to be made into a wig for cancer patients.
“Her hair had life,” says Werning, “and for me her identity was the long hair.”
“The truth is,” says Bordon, “I wasn’t sad when I cut it — I was happy. I’ve become a different person.”