Danish visual artist and photographer Nicolai Howalt is the man behind 141 boxers, a series of diptychs portraying young boxers before and after a fight, often their first. A significant event has happened between the two stills, the subjects have entered the boxing ring, clashed with opponents and their face and body have met and dealt repeated blows. This drama isn’t revealed to the viewer and we are left with a depiction of the match’s brutal aftermath.
Never mind the split lips and bloodied noses, it is the subtle changes in the subject's physiology that are more intriguing. On close inspection one can observe the bodily reactions to adrenaline, struggle and the complex emotions generated by victory and loss. Don't Panic spoke to Howalt about this project.
Why boxing? Have you taken your turn in the ring before and did this influence your approach to the project?
I actually grew up boxing, albeit at a modest level. I had my first boxing match at an early age, an experience which was the direct cause and inspiration for this project. I noticed a few years after my first boxing match that I still clearly remembered the first moments of the match and the moments afterwards but had no recollection of the fight itself. When I interviewed older athletes I discovered that when they reflected on their first experience of boxing, they also had a similar gap in their memory.
As a sport boxing is the subject of much debate. Do you see it as akin to a primal battle or a beautiful choreography? What would your response be to those who call for it to be banned?
The project started with my own recollection about my first boxing match. As an adult looking back on my early experiences as a boxer I see the sport very differently from when I first fought. Today I regard boxing as an experience of an existential challenge where one tries to stand on one's own two feet.
How does your 141 boxers project differ from your previous series boxer? Did you return to any of the same subjects?
This is actually the same project - the same images and the same idea. I re-edited the entire project for an exhibition, viewed the entire work through and then put the images together in a new and more comprehensive form, focusing solely on the face.
What were you hoping to capture in these images?
Innocence, courage and fear.
Many of your subjects are quite young and I assume some of them were relatively new to the sport. Why did you decide to focus on younger/amateur boxers as opposed to professionals?
I didn’t want to focus on boxing as a sport so much but instead wanted to portray it as an existential manhood test that the boys are living through.
How did you go about finding your subjects?
I visited boxers' rallies across Europe.
What kind of reactions have you had to the before and after shots from the subjects themselves?
There was little reaction to the shots from the subjects, but they were polite, understanding and patient and did as they were asked.
Have you included whether the subjects were triumphant, if no why was this information omitted?
In my project, the bigger picture, whether they won or lost is not important. I didn’t want to focus on the action. In a way it gives the photographs more meaning if that piece of information is omitted.
More of Howalt's work can be viewed here