Peter Dammann: Boxing As A Metaphor For Life

Peter Dammann is a passionate photojournalist who has traveled the world to create unflinchingly honest documents of the lives of people living under challenging circumstances. His socially committed reportage resulting from his frequent cooperation with relief agencies and other NGOs has earned him an international reputation. After completing his photographic essays on the living conditions of street and train station children, and on the ‘City of Nuclear Fame’, Bulgaria, he produced an incisive and troubling documentary on day-to-day life in Romanian psychiatric wards. Since 2004, Peter Dammann has been documenting the creation of a Palestinian Youth Orchestra in the West Bank, and in 2008 he began working on coverage of ‘El Sistema,’ the youth orchestra network in Venezuela. Peter Dammann has published several books, his photographs have been widely exhibited, and he has received many prizes, including the World Press Photo Award and the Lead Award. Here is the story of Peter Dammann’s ongoing project on young Ukrainian boxers striving to punch their way out of poverty and despair, along with his revealing comments on his vision of the role of photojournalism and his own creative process.

In the latest issue of LFI, Peter shares his reportage on the boxers in Ukraine.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: My social studies and ten years working experience as a social worker have had a decisive effect on my photographic approach. Before I started working as a photographer, I also studied photography at the Hamburg School of Fine Arts under Professor Kilian Breier.

My photographic reportage documenting the street and railway station children in Eastern Europe and in Asia, covering the highly talented young musicians and ballerinas, as well as child navy cadets in Saint Petersburg and also this portfolio on young boxers in Kiev, are all part of a comprehensive body of work on adolescence.

My photographs often form an integral part of projects undertaken for NGOs. From 2002 to 2004 I photographed psychiatric clinics in Romania and Switzerland. Since 2004 I have been photographing the creation of a Palestinian youth orchestra in Ramallah. In April 2008 I started to follow the music project “El Sistema” in Venezuela. From 2010 to 2012 I photographed the Paliashvili music school for highly talented children in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Q: What camera and equipment did you use to shoot your Ukrainian boxer reportage?

A: For the Ukrainian boxers I used the Leica M6 exclusively, with 21 mm, 28 mm, 35 mm, 50 mm and 90 mm Leica M lenses. I have been photographing this documentary about young boxers in Ukraine since 1999.

Q: Can you provide some background information on your Ukrainian reportage? What inspired the idea? Overall, what is it about?

A: In 1999, I read about the struggles of the Klitschko brothers. They trained in Hamburg, Germany, my hometown. I opened the magazine of the Daily News in Zurich and read a story about Vitali Klitschko, and from the beginning, my idea was to show the roots of the Klitschkos, and the boxing clubs in Ukraine in which they grow these great boxers. It was not until much later that I realized how much the development of the whole country has to do with these boxers.

Q: All the images in this Ukrainian boxing portfolio were shot with a Leica M6 on black-and-white film. Why did you chose this medium for this subject, and what is it that you find especially compelling about the black-and-white analog medium for capturing the essence of this subject?

A: Digital photography is very clean, but boxing is dirty. It smells of sweat and fear; it is flowing blood, and the guys yell and spit. Analog black-and-white photography is dirty too, so it’s a much better fit when documenting boxing. Color is garrulous; when a boxer wears a green t-shirt, this color makes the music, and says something I might want to not tell. Black-and-white tells us more about the state of being of the people and about their feelings — that’s very important because boxing is a metaphor for life.

Q: You mentioned that you used five M-series lenses ranging from 21-90 mm to shoot this project. Which of these did you find most useful?

A: The Leica M6 and the fast lenses are superior to other analog cameras when it comes to photography in low light and high contrast, as is usually the case in dark boxing clubs and training rooms. Digital cameras are not as good in this environment. Of course, the camera also determines the image, not just the photographer. With M-series Leica cameras, my technique is to minimize the distance between myself, as the photographer, and the people I photograph. The small, quiet Leica does not interfere with my direct interaction with the people, and they don’t feel threatened by this camera, so I can take pictures casually.

Q: One could think that there is something viscerally disturbing about seeing young pre-teen boys dedicating themselves to a one-on-one sport whose main object is to knock out your opponent. What are your feelings about this, and did you have any misgivings or mixed emotions about documenting this subject?

A: I think that these boys are incredibly brave and courageous. They get in the ring knowing that they will get hit and will experience pain. But they fight only a few minutes and wear head protection, so the risk of being seriously injured is actually much smaller than, say, football. The essential story about young boxers is a Cinderella story, a story about hope. The boys hope to get out of poverty. They pursue this goal with great dedication, and even if they don’t win any Olympic medal, they still learn lessons about life.

Q: This image is a powerful visual statement about aspiration. A young boy wearing boxing gloves and with a kind of vacant expression on his face with the poster of a boxer with a raised gloved fist behind him. What is your interpretation of this image, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: I’m happy you appreciate this picture, because it is the single image that tells the whole story. On the left is the coach Wladimir Klitschko and his brother Vitali appears on a big poster in the background — two great idols of young Ukrainian boxers. The Klitschkos symbolize the struggle out of poverty, of hope. The boy was photographed after his fight in the boxing club Rubin in Kiev (he had already taken off his head protection). He’s exhausted and isn’t sure whether he won or lost. Hope and doubt can be seen in his facial expression.

I don’t think that a photographer totally controls the picture. But I knew that I had a crucial frame in front of me and I that’s when I shoot a lot of frames to capture the right moment and also to the balance the composition.

Q: This image shows a young boxer lying on his back in the corner of the ring with his helmet in the foreground. Evidently he has been knocked down and is being checked out, and there’s a crowd of onlookers and the Olympic symbol in the background. The picture certainly tells a story, but what’s actually going on here and what do you think this image conveys to the viewer?

A: The boy received a blow in the stomach and could not breathe. The people examining him are a doctor and a nurse — they’re always present at these matches. Fortunately he was able to get up shortly afterward. The effect of the picture is dramatic — it says that it’s a long way to participate as a boxer at the Olympics. It also reveals that boxing is a metaphor for life, and that in life there are goals and there are also setbacks.

Q: This image certainly conveys the social aspect of the boxing phenomenon in the Ukraine, with crowds of intense young men and boys in the background, the ropes of the ring and a kid in boxing shorts in the foreground. The tension in this image is actually enhanced by the fact that the action in the ring that is clearly grabbing everyone’s attention is not visible to the viewer. Do you agree, and why did you decide to compose the picture in this way?

A: Yes, it’s nice how you describe the image.

At first I had only photographed the boy with the naked torso — the smallest boxer in the Rubin boxing club. Then I turned around to shoot to the other boxers who were following the action in the ring, and bang, the picture was better. This picture shows the true aura of boxing, with everyone cheering on the fighters in the ring, calling them, screaming at them and shaking their fists. In the great battles of the Klitschkos the aura of boxing has been lost, these struggles are only television productions, and the viewers are merely extras for the TV show.

Q: What do you think you have accomplished in creating this portfolio? Do you plan on creating any other “socially committed reportage” projects in the near future?

A: So far I have only been to Kiev a few times and once photographed a young Ukrainian boxer in Crimea. I want to take more pictures of the clubs in the west, the north and the east of Ukraine, and to produce a book that’s a compilation of this material.

At the same time I have photographed a documentary about a music school for gifted children in Tbilisi, Georgia over the past three years and these already appear in a book and other publications. Since 2004 I have been photographing in Palestine. In 2013 I photographed a documentary about art in opposition to the occupation in the West Bank. This year I want to produce a photo-documentation “Überlebem in the Gaza Strip” along with “Medico International Switzerland.”

Thank you for your time, Peter!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Peter on his website and Agenteur Focus.

You can see Peter’s full reportage in LFI. Also available for the iPad