“You Next” Black Barber Shop Culture

Words + Photography: Antonio M. Johnson

My uncle Jason, my mother’s youngest brother, was a barber and has always embodied for me everything cool, stylish, and “fly.” Between semesters at college, he worked in a barbershop on Market Street. I can still picture it—the old wood paneling, the receptionist in her pink shirt with gold door-knocker earrings, and long nails. When it was my turn, my uncle would sit me in his chair, turn me toward the mirror and say jokingly, “Man, your hair is peasy! Let me hook you up.”

In June 2018, I embarked on a journey to explore a space that, for as long as I can remember, has been near and dear to my heart —the barbershop. Whenever I think about sitting in that chair, cloaked in my barber’s cape, and surrounded by members of my community, I’m instantly reminded of weekend shop visits in Philadelphia with my dad to his barber, Mr. Leon, and my spending time with my uncle at his shop.

I recently completed a 12-city tour of America’s black barbershops to document the meaning of these places, to tell the true and untold story of one of the nation’s oldest cultural institutions. This project, You Next, is an intimate photographic exploration of the ways Black barbershops operate as sites for the cultivation of Black male identity and wellness. I have visited shops in major U.S. cities known for their barbershop culture—Gary, Indiana; Washington D.C.; New York City; Oakland; Atlanta; Los Angeles; Detroit; New Orlean; Montgomery; Memphis, and my hometown of Philadelphia. Since then, I met a toddler in DC on the occasion of his first haircut and a New Orleans barber who’s been in the business for more than half a century. I’ve talked to fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers about what it means to be Black men in America, and what the barbershop means to them. The result of this reporting will be a timeless photo book, made available on September 1, 2020, of more than 200 images and 12 essays from this generation’s leading writers such as Hanif Abdurraqib, Julian Kimble, Jason Parham, Donovan X. Ramsey, Zak Cheney-Rice.

You Next: Reflections of Black Barber Shops is my first major project as a long-form storyteller but it represents more than four years of my photography with a focus on barbershops, churches, parks, and basketball courts—public spaces where wellness work is done in urban America. It is a capstone on that body of work. So why “You Next”? In Black barbershops, “You next” is said by barbers to customers to indicate that they’re on deck for a haircut. After waiting in a shop, sharing, laughing and debating, those magic words signify you are about to be transformed. It is my hope that individuals who experience You Next will see themselves in the images captured, identify with the experience, and be no less transformed by it.

Pre order the book: HERE