Documenting Boxing Matches in Detroit Using Film

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All images by Andrew Kochanowski. Used with permission.

Photographer Andrew Kochanowski is mostly a street photographer, but his project A Few Nights in the Ring is a prime example of how the talents developed on the streets can be translated into other types of work. Andrew, who shot the images in Detroit, spent some time photographing low level boxing matches. Boxing and sports in general can be tough to shoot, but imagine shooting it on film–and more specifically with some of it on 6×9 medium format film.

Andrew’s talents have earned him exhibitions in Detroit, Paris, London, Warsaw, Berlin, and some other places. He’s also a member of Burn My Eye, an international collective of talented photographers from the United States, Europe and Japan.

Indeed, this project shows incredibly humanistic moments with an aesthetic that will keep your eyes glued.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

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Andrew: I’ve been photographing with a purpose for more than 10 years. Before that I fiddled around with a camera here and there. My Dad taught me how to print in a homemade darkroom when I was a little kid, and once I started traveling for work, I bought a Canon—this is during film days—and a 50mm lens and started taking pictures myself. At some point I realized that all the things I was shooting had been photographed before and better, so I decided that I ought to up my game a bit.

What I am really is a serious street photographer. That’s all I really aspire to be photographically, and that is most of my serious work. This was a side project.

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Phoblographer: What made you want to get into documentary projects like this?

Andrew: I don’t think of this as a documentary project at all. What I try and do is take photos not of something but about the thing that the photo suggests. I never set out to tell the story of lower-level boxing in Detroit, there are plenty of people who can do a better job of that than I can. What I wanted is to get at the essence of the experience of being there. It’s a piece of performance art as much as a sporting event. I try to let the photos show the art.

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Phoblographer: You told us that you were able to get access to boxing matches there in Detroit. How did you go about getting this access let alone gaining the trust of officials to be able to document all this? More specifically, how did you go about planning for this project?

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Andrew: This is sanctioned, officiated professional boxing, though at a relatively low level. Getting access is like anywhere else, you need to be credible, professional, and willing to trade a bit of this for a bit of that. Mostly I was happy to let the promoters use my photos for their needs, maybe get a print or digital photo to a fighter or their family, allow for boxing websites to use the actual fight shots for their needs. I was not particularly interested in the boxing itself, I was intrigued by having the opportunity to shoot it the way it was not being shot, from what I could see. So I gained people’s trust by being there when I said I would be and in turn I got a ring-side seat at a whole lot of events.

Phoblographer: Your images look like they were shot with film. Were they? Why did you choose this aesthetic?

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Andrew: Yes, just about everything was shot with film, either Kodak EPH 1600, an old, and even then obsolete slide film I’d buy on eBay, or Kodak Portra in 6×9 format, shot with an old Fuji rangefinder. Let me tell you, shooting a moving match with 12 photos in a big camera is a thrill a minute. The aesthetic was natural. I shot with slide film and Portra for years on the streets. It’s how I see and it’s what I like to see. Even now, when I shoot all digital, my great preference is for the color palette to be like film. Of course I have an advantage over many younger photographers who only know film from emulations or maybe having shot a roll or two that I shot it for years and know what it really looks like. This is what it looks like.

Having said all that, I did carry a digital camera with me most of the time as well, and shot that for the material I would be providing for the promoters and websites. Occasionally I got a frame with that that I wanted to use in the project I was shooting for my own.

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Phoblographer:When you’re photographing a boxing match and the events around it, what’s going through your mind (creatively speaking, of course) as far as angles and how you’re telling the story?

Andrew: That’s a great question. I’m very much not a pro sports photographer, nor do I want to be. Consequently, what I want to photograph is not what you may want to expect. For me the real drama was the moment after something happened, the reaction of the crowd, the relief in the family’s face after the fight, the emotions in the locker room as the fighters were getting taped, the events after the fight. Most of these men were young, scared, acting tough, but behind the curtain, there were small children and their moms and girlfriends. It’s quite a scene. The best advice for this is something I was taught a long time ago, try not to be a jerk and see how far that will take you. It works.

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It also helps to keep your eyes open and figure out when to shoot. I saw enough fights to be able to tell when something was likely to happen and often prefocused right where I thought the action would be. Shooting without AF can be handy sometimes.

Phoblographer: What made you want to keep this series in color rather than embracing the grain and grit of black and white?

Andrew: I shoot in color, that’s what I do.

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Phoblographer: What’s your most memorable moment from this project and why does it stick out in your head so much?

Andrew: Most of what I am showing your viewers here was shot over two days at a local ring in an old theater. The lighting was particularly wonderful there, and most of the edit I am showing was shot on 6×9 film that was a pain to scan. The angles I was able to get were quite extreme, and many of the fights were a mismatch, over in a round or two with a loud knockout. I decided to keep a tight edit over those two days of shooting, and concentrated on a few scenes I planned out, and luckily the action cooperated.

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I very much enjoyed getting to know the fighters and their families a bit. They are good people. Now, cage match fighting is all the rage, and boxing like this is fading out. I have no interest in shooting cage matches. I did some for a couple of promoters I got to know, and it’s just not my cup of tea. Though I wouldn’t mind doing a project on Rhonda Rousey 🙂

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