Belonging Let me start with a brief overview of my alopecia journey. I discovered my first bald patch above my ear just over two years ago, developing more patches over the coming months. After a brief few months of good regrowth where I almost regained all my hair, it began to fall out again. This time it happened faster and also took with it all of my body hair. For me the process from finding my first patch to being completely bald all over took fourteen months. The practical and mental aspects of the condition both hit me hard. It has taken me almost up to the two year anniversary of finding my first patch to get to a strong position of managing both. You can read an earlier blog from me, in which I expand more on my feelings and experience, here. When I first read a post on the Alopecia UK Men’s Chat Facebook group asking for men to take part in an alopecia awareness photoshoot I gave it a passing thought but quickly dismissed it, telling myself it wouldn’t be worth it, it’s too far to travel and most of all - why me? My confidence with my alopecia had been growing in the recent months and hats were no longer permanently glued to my head. However, to have my photograph taken for others to see beyond the small circle of people who know me bald would be a huge leap. The next day I found myself seeking out the Facebook post again to reread it and really consider the idea of involving myself. I got in contact with Alopecia UK that evening and a week later, after discussing it with my wife and those around me, I sent the email to sign up. I knew it would be an experience that would be positive but I underestimated just to what length. When the day came to travel to London to meet the project photographer Orlando Gili and the other guys, my confidence hit an unknown stratospheric level. I caught the train from Oxfordshire, navigated the tube and walked to the studio with my hat tucked away inside my rucksack. It was the longest I’d spent bald in public and through the busiest of places I’d been – after all I live in Devon! When I arrived at the studio in Dalston the building attendant freely waved me in, my baldness amusingly identifying my reason for being there. The guys and Orlando were immediately welcoming, freely sharing their experiences and stories of their lives with, and without, alopecia. It was the first time I’d met anyone else with alopecia and sitting around in the sunlit industrial studio overlooking London rooftops I felt a sense of belonging with these other men. It gave me comfort knowing that I was at just one point on this complex journey and things were only looking up from here. These shared experiences whether decades in the making or months, were valuable and insightful and often funny too. It’s super easy to get caught up with alopecia and its negative effects, as I did for months on end, suffering far more than I realised at the time. But I found myself laughing with my fellow alopecians at this frustrating condition, and within that I discovered laughter as another effective tool in helping to cope with it. How alopecia affects each individual differently, whether that is the age it begins, the speed the hair falls out, or the amount of hair lost, mixed with our own unique coping mechanisms creates a different cocktail of the condition for every person experiencing it. Now I’m usually the sort of person to bite the bullet and get things done early on when I’m nervous, so when I was one of the last to go in front of the lens my nerves had built up, yet any concerns were instantly put to rest by Orlando. His relaxed presence, kind words and positivity outweighed any of those other thoughts I had had. We chatted casually as he took photographs, adjusting screen angles and lighting almost without me knowing at times. I’d forgotten about the preconceived anxieties of a photograph of bald me being out there, and my focus became entirely on the present moment and Orlando’s subtle instructions and advice. The twenty or so minutes with him felt like only five, his empathy in the situation was truly unique having gone through a similar experience to us all - I know now I wouldn’t have a second thought in doing it again. I’m so grateful for that day, to Alopecia UK, Orlando and the other guys. Each person in that room was inspiring and I can’t thank them enough for the difference they’ve made to my journey so far. I’m so happy I took the opportunity of meeting others with alopecia for the first time. It has lifted me up beyond what I expected and I hope the photographs can go on to raise more awareness, direct others to the wonderful support on offer from Alopecia UK, and help someone take another step forward in their own journey. Thank you Matt. Photographer Orlando Gili has also written his own blog about the photography project which you can read here.