It is a brisk fall day in 2017. Charleston Collins Sr. is with a customer. Bespectacled and dressed in a black jacket, he snips, chops and combs with a purpose, as if his life depends on it. Family photos line the walls of the 50-year-old barbershop, and a family chatters about the latest happenings in the neighborhood while waiting for their turn. Signs on the walls reflect the culture of the place, like "Absolutely no foul language" and "Keep your pants pulled up.” Fluorescent light bounces off the smooth, black leather chairs as well as the barber's intense furrowed brow. The door opens. He relaxes his brow and looks up.
"How are you doing, young lady?" he softly greeted me. The master barber — Mr. Charleston as I call him — is unaware of my mission to document his life’s work over the next 12 months.
In 1970, Carlton Collins Jr., Mr. Charleston's father, opened the first Collin’s Barber Shop on Fayette Street in Syracuse, New York. In 1983, Collins Jr. and his wife, Juanita Collins, purchased a house at the corner of South Crouse Avenue and Fayette Street. Soon after, Juanita started running a beauty shop upstairs, so the barbershop was renamed Collin's Barber & Beauty Shop. Mr. Charleston, their youngest son, began working at the shop and learning the family business at the age of 24, after working in Allwash of Syracuse, Inc. for two years, which is a company removing hazardous waste.
When Carlton passed away in 2014, Mr. Charleston continued to maintain the safe and respectful space his father and mother worked so hard to nurture. In fact, it is his emphasis on relationships and attention to detail that has earned him a loyal core of longtime customers.
But Mr. Charleston's connection to his community reaches far beyond the walls of the barbershop because he genuinely cares about people, especially about the next generation. He serves as a deacon at Central Baptist Church and teaches in its children’s ministry. He supports local youth as a volunteer coach at Inner City Little League, a position he's held for 22 years. He gives complimentary haircuts to people in need at shelters, churches and other nonprofit organizations. Mr.Charleston is a mentor, a father figure and a good friend.
Two years ago, I became a photographer because I wanted to document romantic relationships; I thought I would work in the wedding industry. However, this project with Mr. Charleston helped me realize that my interest in photography goes beyond that. I now know that my calling is to give a voice to unsung heroes — the Mr. Charlestons of the world who make a difference every day in their communities. He may not grace the TV screen or magazines, yet to so many, Mr. Charleston is a celebrity and local hero. This became quite clear when I asked more than 20 of his customers to write down their impressions of and connection to Mr. Charleston. Each note illustrated his impact on their lives and in the community.
As an international student from East Asia, I’ve visited many parts of the world and learned many languages, customs and cultures. Yet in all my travels, none of my experiences has taught or affected me more than the year I spent documenting Mr. Charleston, a man of God, a man of impact, a man of compassion, a man of loss, a man of love, a man of family and a man of redemption. This body of work reflects his life and character. I hope you enjoy the images and his story as much as I enjoyed collecting them for you.