Author's note: This is the first in a two-part series on photographer Thomas Knights. Look for part II on our blog on Tuesday, March 6.
By the time he reached puberty, Thomas Knights had heard all of the insults and jokes about redheads that circulate throughout elementary school classrooms and playgrounds.
"I grew up hating my hair and hating myself," says Knights, a UK-based photographer living in London, adding that he dyed his hair blonde for several years to conceal its true color. "It was an innate part of me, but I always despised it. I always had an issue with being ginger. (My mother and I) went to see 'The Little Mermaid,' and I remember crying all of the way home because I wanted (black) hair like the prince."
It wasn't until a few years ago that Knights began to notice a societal shift in how redheads are viewed by others. It's a trend he attributes to one of the world's most famous gingers, Britain's Prince Harry.
"Prince Harry was starting to make waves as the sexy ginger prince," Knights recalls. "He was caught getting naked in Las Vegas, and there were pictures all over the Internet. The byproduct of that was that people started saying how sexy he was. I thought to myself, 'There is a moment happening, and I knew I was ready for something."
Knights' moment was realizing he could channel this newfound passion for redheads and pride in one's identity into art -- specifically, a photography project that would eventually find its ways into art galleries and even an accompanying coffee table book, aptly titled, "Red Hot 100."
It was a metamorphosis whose timing, Knights says, was impeccable, and a transformation that was quite unexpected. After all, notes the artist and musician, the vocation of photographer wasn't even in his periphery growing up.
"I never had any ambition to be a photographer at all," he explains. "But when I needed pictures with my band, I got my mum to take several. I would set up the whole shot for her, and eventually, I found I liked that process."
Interested, Knights borrowed his mother's old camera and began asking friends about opportunities to practice shooting. He shadowed other, more experienced photographers, first mimicking their style and then crafting his own. Knights was 25 years old, and at an age when his peers had already established a career in their field of choice.
Knights began participating in photo shoots for gay publications throughout London. And as the ginger prince's star began to shine brighter, so, too, did his own.
"It dawned on me -- no one has ever done anything to showcase ginger men in a positive way," Knights recalls. "I was like, 'Shit, I've come up with an original idea!' And coming up with an original idea as a photographer is near impossible. This was a whole sector of humanity that had never had a positive platform in the history of the world."
To bring his red hot project to the masses, Knights needed an army of gingers from all walks of life, of course. He solicited his subjects on social media platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.
The men did respond, albeit somewhat shyly at first.
"A lot of them struggled to get into those pictures," Knights says. "They had no confidence in themselves. They'd look so sheepish and uncomfortable, and I'd try to make them laugh. Suddenly, almost by accident, they looked confident. And when you put them together, there's this incredible energy."
The tight-lipped frowns and anxiety emanating from his models melted away, giving way to a face of freckles concealed by a blush, or a flash of white teeth revealed within an earnest smile, or green eyes lit up with excitement at the prospect of newfound attention -- the positive, encouraging attention these men had been lacking their entire lives.
"At first, they looked super self-confident, but many really weren't," Knights notes. "Now, they have way more confidence. They'd spent their lives on the outside, and then they became part of a group and have a sense of unity. It's a really special thing."
Knights saw something special in his models and in his projects. Now that the photos had been compiled, the real work would begin -- the work of changing minds of people the world over about redheads -- that these men were to be admired, desired, respected, and appreciated.
"I never had any role models to look up to," Knights says. "Ginger men were never the heartthrobs, never the heroes, never the leading man. But I knew this project would allow a ginger boy being bullied to have someone to look up to, and it would have a huge impact."
In the months and weeks leading up to his exhibition opening in 2013, as funding continued to pour in via crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, Knights was ever more sure his Red Hot project would change the way society viewed redheads. But would the press agree? Would the art world agree? And would it be enough to transform the playground victim into the alpha male?
Part II of our Thomas Knights profile will focus on the critical reception to Red Hot, the development of follow-up project Red Hot II, and Knights' continuing journey of self-discovery through both.