Photo Competition gets ‘hairy’

The Missouri chapter of beard-growers on their road trip to Nashville.

Special to The Chart

The Missouri chapter of beard-growers on their road trip to Nashville.

Colby Williams

Beards – once honored on the faces of noblemen, scholars and world leaders – are now associated with poverty and laziness. Some local residents disagree.

One of these beard advocates is Mark Neuenschwander, local photographer and Barista at Starbucks Coffee Company. Neuenschwander, who runs 9artphoto.com, belongs to a club called Whiskerino, a part beard-growing, part photo competition with members around the world.

For the last four months, around 300 men were growing out their beards and posting daily pictures online at Whiskerino.org. Always looking for a photographic challenge, Neuenschwander joined the club in order to push himself in his art.

“There was a buzz being generated at my work,” Neuenschwander said. “All of a sudden I started hearing Whiskerino this and Whiskerino that. Someone explained it to me, and I thought it sounded ridiculous. After a couple days, I decided to do it.”

Little did he know the first click on that Web site began a four month adventure filled with beards, friends and fun.

Whiskerino.org is the well-designed Web site, hosted and created by Michael Eades, where men from all over the world come together to grow beards. It started with three guys in a beard-growing club in college in the late nineties and has now spread to hundreds of members around the globe. The idea is for members to shave on November 1st every other year and then throw away their razors for the next 120 days. Throughout the four months participants “grow and show,” posting pictures daily, participating in daily themes, commenting on others’ photos and getting to know other growers. Friendships are born and competition flares. Everyone gives points to favorite photos, and at the end of each day a “King Beard” is awarded to the photo with the most points. If a participant shaves or fails to post a picture for seven days, he is put into the “Hall of Shame” and banned from the site. At the end of February, the bearded fellowship gathers in Nashville for a weekend of hanging out and partying, complete with concerts, bowling, formal banquets and art shows.

For Mark 9schwander, as he is named on the site, growing a beard comes easy – the hard part is pushing himself to new creative levels.

“On average I spend about an hour a day,” Neuenschwander said. “But some days I would spend hours setting up shots. I feel like I have to turn out really good pictures, especially since I call myself a photographer and there are other professional photographers on the site.”

Even with his photographic capability, however, Neuenschwander might not have made it through the four months without help. Fortunately, Joplin is home to a slew of other “beardos.” At the beginning of the competition, 19 Joplinites shaved their faces clean, and at the end, 10 remain growing strong. Many of these hairy faced men work and hang out together regularly. Joplin even played host to an official Whiskerino “Meet ‘n Greet,” where participants from Joplin, Kansas City, and Arkansas came together for some bearded laser tag, pizza and fellowship.

Some of these Joplin beard-growers go to Missouri Southern, such as Derek Johnson, known on the site as Absolutely. Johnson, a junior history major, has perfect picture posting attendance in the competition, and his shaggy red beard is well known on the Web site.

Five hundred and fifty miles from Joplin in Nashville, the founder of Whiskerino, known as Mackle on the site, is amazed at how large the site has gotten and at the community that grew around the beard.

“After college I decided to make an online version of the contest hosted off

of my own personal site, really more as a way to force myself to learn

more web development code than anything,” said Mackle, who sports one of the largest beards in the group. “The amount of people that signed up for the first Whiskerino in 2005 was a shock to me, I never thought it would be that popular, and now, for the 2007 competition, I am just flabbergasted at how huge and out of control it has gotten.”

Part of the genius of the community is that it is centered around growing a beard – something about which the participants generally care very little.

“The whole “beard growing” aspect of Whiskerino is a sham,” Mackle said. “It is merely a vessel to gather a group of people together to take creative photos, ‘hang out’ in a virtual environment and make friends. I like to think of Whiskerino as a place to push ourselves creatively. It’s obvious that not everyone involved is a professional photographer – which is great – but it will hopefully push people to use that creative portion of their brain that they may have turned off while at their day job. I can’t think of a single negative aspect of pushing people to be creative.

“Lastly, and maybe most importantly, it’s about bonding. This is a difficult aspect of the site to understand from the outside looking in, but if you are involved in it you can quickly see that the more you participate, the more people you know, the more people know you, and, thus, you want to participate even more. Hopefully, in the end, there are friendships formed that last beyond Whiskerino, beyond the beardedness, and into ‘real life.'”

This year, two other repeat participants are engaging their creativity by combining their film-making aspirations with their beard-growing hobby. Motke and Marko, of Fighting with Forks Productions, are making a documentary about this year’s Whiskerino competition.

“At this point, we’re merely trying to gather as much footage as we can, with a few threads of thought in mind,” Motke said. “Our purpose is to attempt to capture the creativity and strange bonding that has occurred from this strange facial hair social community.”

When the documentary is completed, Fighting with Forks hopes to pursue production of the film and spread it to as many eyes as possible.

“We really hope to submit it to several film festivals and possibly search for distribution,” Motke said. “At the very least, we’ll sell it to the bearded brethren. There’s no telling how many people we’ve got on film so far. The ‘Throwdown,’ when beards from all over the world to descend on Nashville, will be our craziest time. We expect to capture six to 10 hours of footage that weekend alone.”

Other participants are quite successful in the realms of photography and graphic and Web design, such as David.bean, a Nashville-based photographer, who shoots for the X-Games.

Some have even become regarded as almost celebrities on the Whiskerino Web site, like Paul, a brilliant photographer, jnonfiction, who uses cutouts of other beard-growers in his photos, and Jar, a Kansas City-based graphic designer, who stunned the community with his spectacular photo series.

With guys growing their facial hair out for four months, though, their female counterparts might have something to say on the matter. Many of the participants’ wives begged them to shave, and some men succumbed to the pressure. Other women encouraged their husbands and boyfriends. Many women in Joplin even confessed fascinations and near addictions to the site throughout the competition.

“I like his beard, but I can’t wait for him to be able to trim it,” said Autumn Neuenschwander, Mark’s supportive wife and senior art education major at Southern. “As for his obsession, if it wasn’t that it would be something else. He has an obsessive personality. We’ve had a few arguments on what he should be spending his time on, though. When he has extra time, he spends it on Whiskerino instead of paying the bills.”

Mark’s long-running photo series, in a detective film-noir style, won him one King Beard award and got him very attached to his beard and to the site.

“Part of me will be glad it’s over. Part of me will miss it,” Mark said.

At the close of the competition, 238 beard-growers remained. Friendships were found, thousands of photos were taken and mountains of whiskers fell to the floor. A solemn tone rests on the site as many say good-bye and prepare to kick their four-month addiction. One can only hope that the joy of beards spread to new horizons and that 2009 will bring another great winter of beard growth.

To check out the archives of this year’s competition and all of the Joplin participants’ photos, visit whiskerino.org/2007.