Photographer, get in the ring

Jan 3rd 2018 | 0 COMMENTS
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“……Photographer.. Get in the ring.” 

A second time, he said it again, I think he wants me in the ring to …

“Photographer, get in the ring”

He was holding the ropes open for me too…. no choice, I have to get in the ring!

An hour earlier, I was peeling my jumpers off after arriving at the submerged Winter Gardens on Margate’s coast for the Pej’s All Stars mid winter boxing night. The Winter Gardens is a fantastic Edwardian venue embedded in the Margate coastline. It was built in 1911 and played host to The Beatles in 1963. It has been a venue in Margate for over 100 years. The temperature inside was heating up, quite literally, as the boxers milled around on the balcony over looking the hall, the crowd and the ring which was set up at the back of the hall in front of a stage. I was there to watch Liam J. Nabb fight. I’d never been to a boxing night before and wasn’t sure what to expect, but Liam had invited me, and I was very curious to see it and possibly take a few photographs.

I knew Liam and his wife Louise Oldfield as the proprietors of the Reading Rooms boutique B&B in Margate. Having stayed there several times over the years, we had become friends since my wife Michelle Meyer-Masterson and I moved to Margate in the summer of 2016. Liam is the sweetest guy, so the proposition of seeing him fight was intriguing to say the least! I was keen to take some documentary photographs, so Liam introduced me to a few people in the warm up area to help me fit in. I also recognised Ed Targett who was in the fighters area, moving around and saying hello to everyone. I had photographed Ed for his Green Party campaign portrait earlier in 2017 and we had chatted about boxing. Ed was helping Liam to prepare, warm up and to carefully wrap his hands with tape and was going to be one of his corner men alongside Nitish Keshav.

After watching the first couple of bouts from the rafters I went down to try and mingle in before Liam’s bout. I knew from experience as a music photographer and documentary film maker that getting in early was important especially if you didn’t have any official pass or permissions beyond a few handshakes. As luck would have it I saw Ed was also a corner man for the next fight so I crept in closer to shoot from the side of the stage. Within minutes I felt a tap on the shoulder. Resigned to being ejected, I rose up to apologise, explain that I knew Ed and Liam, and to ask permission to stay - but the tap was followed by a gesture to the stage. The security guy was inviting me to get closer. Brilliant! .

I started to shoot from behind the partitions on built in venue stage beside the ring. You have to take it slow and steady when shooting documentary images. If you build up a gentle rhythm taking photographs around people they will look at you and very soon ignore you if you do not interrupt or get in the way. There is a lot of body language involved, sending out the right energy. To become invisible it’s best to be a consistent presence and to back off regularly to show you understand this is not your place and that you are merely a guest. I try to get in all of my ‘moves’ and mistakes before the main event, testing the waters of how close I could get, so that by the time Liam was in the ring I wasn’t doing anything that would alarm the promoters. Little did I know what was to come!.

This first fight that I photographed between between Simon Searle and Mathew Miles was tremendous. It was my first time in the vicinity of any boxing and I was surprised how controlled it was. I played rugby until I was 19 (way back in 1990!), and was used to getting keyed up as a forward for the collisions and for the aggression necessary to get stuck in with a full contact sport, but I had never been punched or attacked. Boxing is a controlled affair of huge intensity and effort, far more cat and mouse than rugby..

The atmosphere in the room throughout the night was wonderful. There was regular cheering and support from the crowd and at one point after the following bout the victor Bradley Dennis was carried off by his fans. However before that fight I had a surprise in store, at the end of this first bout of three rounds the compere was insisting I get in the ring!.

The first I knew of it I was close in watching the fighters salute each other after the fight, move to the centre of the ring to stand with the referee and hear the result from the judges. The compere stood in beside me, pulled the ropes up and seemed to make a statement. “Photographer get in the ring.” I didn’t understand him at first because I was concentrating on taking photographs but as the words sank in he was making, what sounded like a the statement again. It wasn’t really a request or a demand, it seemed I had no choice in the matter. Apparently I had a place to be and I needed to be there already! I’ve been a photographer for 25 years and I did figure out that I was expected to take some photographs in fact, more than that, I realised he must think I am the official photographer!.

At this stage, Liam’s fight was coming up so I didn’t want to blow my cover, but that wasn’t actually what was making me hesitate. I was slightly intimidated about the prospect of getting in the ring of such an intense arena, but the real problem was I had a telephoto lens on my camera, not a wide angle! I would definitely need a wide angle lens on the camera in order to get a group shot, but because the bout was indoors with minimal lighting I was using fixed length lenses, not a zoom in order to have fast apertures and let more light in. Either way, my head was screaming now, as my camera bag was 20 feet away. I had to get the job done even if it wasn’t my job!! They were letting me shoot with total freedom, and I was very happy to reciprocate a little, so I stepped in and ran to the opposite corner. I crouched down to wait for the judges’ decision but realised there was no point in shooting from that spot, the telephoto lens (85mm f1.8 Canon) would only fit a head and shoulders, so I quickly skipped to the side and framed both fighters’ heads for the decision, which made for some dramatic images. Not quite the group shot but certainly better than no photos at all!.

Liam told me later that some of the fighters knew each other from boxing at All Stars gym in Margate. Others came from different gyms, many of them from Portsmouth. I had noticed that at the end of a round the boxers were often nodding and saluting each other, acknowledging the previous 3 minutes. There was clearly a lot of respect for the opponent and the ceremony of it all. There wasn’t a trace of any raw aggression that one might expect, the fighting was on and off like a switch, when the bell rang, it was very intense but with no malice - certainly none that I saw in the few bouts I photographed. I’m sure there was perhaps the occasional punch thrown in anger, but I’d guess that there was a fear of losing control and perhaps allowing the opponent a free shot if that aggression clouded their judgement. I have no doubt these men could be hurt if they allowed any one of the boxers to hit them unawares. I’ve been playing 5 a side soccer in organised teams in for years, and I have seen more pettiness and ill temper on the football pitch on a weekly basis than I saw in all of the bouts on this night in Margate. .

The final fight that I photographed, the ‘main event’ for me, was Liam J. Nabb Vs. Cecil Urin. Another great, intense bout with a lot of tenderness and care in between the swinging punches. It was fascinating to watch close up, and I hope the photographs give some idea of what it was like from just a few feet away..

A great night and wonderful atmosphere all around, perhaps not for everyone, but certainly not what I expected. The overriding memory I came away with was a great respect for the discipline of these athletes who were certainly fighting but also looking after each other. There was a great warmth and camaraderie shared between all of the competitors and the crowd..

It was inspiring to see this sport practised with great dignity and spirit, as an outlet for competitive energy, and as a shared pursuit amongst friends. There was a purity to the experience, and it was an absolute privilege to photograph..

You can see more of the images from the night that I couldn’t fit here on my Instagram account or Facebook Page

About Conor

Conor is a photographer and film maker based in London. His images can be viewed on his website on the PHOTOGRAPHY and FILM links above. This blog is a good place to see all sorts of personal work and general projects in progress.

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