Aristotle once said: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Ernst Coppejans’ photo series “Orange Is the New Black” explores this very idea.
The photo series consists of portraits of men in Bangladesh who have dyed the hair on their heads or faces using the orange-red color produced by the flowering henna plant.
“I was shooting a new series in Bangladesh and I (had) to travel a lot,” Coppejans said. “From the minute I arrived, I noticed these men with orange hair, orange beards, orange mustaches, and I kept seeing them.”
Coppejans notes that the title of his photo series has nothing to do with the comedy-drama show of the same name on Netflix. Instead, it stems from the fact that each of the men photographed had chosen to participate in a sort of custom or trend in which they decided to alter the natural color of their hair.
Some Muslim men told Coppejans their decision was in reference to the Prophet Muhammad, who is believed to have dyed his hair as well. Some men had just returned from Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. The practice of dyeing hair also generally occurs around the time of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.
For those who did not reference religion as playing a role in their decision, Coppejans says the men took to henna for reasons of vanity. This sheds light upon the notion of how people can express their inner selves through the way in which they use the exterior of their body as a canvas.
“We all express (ourselves) by how we look—we express emotions or how we feel,” Coppejans said. “I think it’s also a status thing or something, the beards. … People kind of look up to (the men). It makes them a little bit more important, or that kind of feeling.”
Approaching subjects was fairly straight-forward for Coppejans. He says that while there was one person who did not want to be photographed, he was pleasantly surprised that other men he asked were open to posing for a portrait.
“Whenever I encountered (someone) I asked them: ‘Can I take your portrait? Because I’m making a series of men with orange beards,’ “ Coppejans said. “And they all thought it was funny and they posed for me.”
There are various details to observe throughout the series. For example, in photo No. 10 in the gallery above, it is not solely the subject’s orange beard that one may notice, but also how the tea in the cup he is holding is almost the same color as the beard.
For many people, smiling is like a reflex when in the presence of a camera. In Coppejans’ series, the men’s decision not to smile becomes another notable detail in the majority of the portraits.
“I always kind of have a thing with smiling—that you don’t see the (person’s) real face,” Coppejans said. “I think this is way more interesting. You see the actual person instead of a smile.”
What makes the portraits especially poignant is that although they show the similarities between the Bangladeshi men on the surface, there is a much deeper sense of diversity running through the entire photo series.
Coppejans’ portraits likely contain people “from all layers of the population” in Bangladesh, he said—young and old, businessmen and tea sellers.
“There’s the guy, a businessman kind of a guy, in a striped shirt and only orange hair in front of a tree with flowers,” Coppejans said of photo No. 2 in the gallery. “I was like, ‘That’s wonderful, because he’s so different than everybody else.’ “
All of the portraits were shot under natural light and at the exact location Coppejans spotted his subjects.
“They are honest portraits. It’s an everyday life series, basically. This is Bangladesh, this is what you see, this is what you get,” Coppejans said. “It’s men just living their lives.”
By Benazir Wehelie, Special to CNN. He is a photographer based in the Netherlands. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.