Anyone who’s been over to Bradford recently will have been surprised to see the new cultural space of ‘Hand Made in Bradford’ (HMiB) transformed into a mock boxing ring. This is all part of Lee Karen Stow’s contribution to the creative responses to the Olympic Games. We catch up with Lee and ask her a little about the work and exhibition…
How did you start the project?
Girls in the Ring has its origins in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone in West Africa, and official twin city to my birthplace of Kingston-upon-Hull in East Yorkshire.
In 2007 I began to photograph the women in Freetown for a documentary project to highlight the poor life expectancy among women, then around the age of 42. I met Sarah, Grace, Admire and other members of the Sierra Leone Women’s Boxing Team, and began documenting their efforts to try to qualify for London 2012. I returned to Sierra Leone six times and each time photographed the boxers.
Why is female boxing so newsworthy right now?
In 2009 the International Olympic Committee decided to allow women to compete in the boxing ring, for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games. At London 2012, the world’s elite female fighters would compete across three weight categories: flyweight (48-51kg); lightweight (56-60kg) and middleweight (69-75kg) for gold, silver and bronze medals.
How did you get started on the UK project?
I wasn’t happy with the boxing images, and that’s because I had no idea what boxing was all about, and why women wanted to do the sport. Like many people I also wrongly assumed amateur boxing is the same as professional boxing, undertaken by the likes of Mohammad Ali and Mike Tyson, and knocking seven bells out of each other. It is not. It is a different sport.
So, in an effort to learn more about the art and skill of amateur boxing, I looked to the boxing gyms of Hull and for a short while joined the women’s session at a club in Hull. At 44 I felt clumsy and way out of my league, yet became addicted to the buzz that boxing gives. My curiosity and admiration for spread to other gyms, and out across Yorkshire, and so began Girls in the Ring a documentary photographic look into the world of female amateur boxing. I received Arts Council funding to enable me to carry out and complete the project. Girls in the Ring then received the Inspire mark as part of the Cultural Olympiad, and recognised as a project that ties in the aims and hopefully the legacy of London 2012.
Any anecdotes or comments from your time training with the girls?
On Saturday mornings and weekday nights, down at the boxing gyms of Yorkshire, women and girls are in gloves. According to the Amateur Boxing Association of England (ABAE) there are around 16,000 females aged 16 years and over who participate in boxing in some form. I met Jeanna who has diabetes and had to fight the authorities for three years before she was allowed into the ring to compete. I met young girls who were bullied at school and took up boxing to build self-esteem and confidence. I met a young girl who is on the autism spectrum and uses boxing to help her focus her mind. I met girls who had lost excess weight and had boosted their health. I met mothers who had to choose between boxing and having a baby, and thus miss out on championship competitions. And I also had the privilege to meet Nicola Adams from Leeds, who will compete in the ring at London 2012. Female boxers are schoolgirls, mothers, diabetics, shop assistants, hairdressers, solicitors, students… champions.
How did your Sierra Leone and UK experiences contrast and mirror one another?
The women and girls in Sierra Leone train in the dilapidated international sports stadium in Freetown, a forgotten facility with no showers, running water or drinking water. Rain pours through the holes in the roof during the rainy season. They wait for the men to finish with the gym’s boxing gloves, soaked inside with sweat, before they can begin training. They face barriers of discrimination and oppression, a lack of basic equipment, zero funding and sponsorship, a diet devoid of meats and fresh vegetables, and the constant threat of malaria. And finally, despite efforts to help the women boxers of Sierra Leone qualify for London 2012, enough support and funds didn’t materialise. In February the head of the team, Grace Brown, died at the age of 43, from breast cancer. Her breast was removed and she was sent home with a box of pills to try to recover. There is no chemotherapy. She suffered a stroke before she died. Without their head and leader, the team were demoralised.
Tell us a little about meeting Barbara Buttrick – the world’s first professional boxing champion.
I met Barbara in Miami whilst I was over in Florida. It took five hours to reach her by bus and I stayed overnight with her in her apartment. The ‘Mighty Atom’ talked about her life in boxing, how she became interested in the sport as a teenager, how she was brutally criticised by the press for not staying at home at the kitchen sink and choosing to go into boxing instead. We were born in the same place, Cottingham, near Hull. She gave me the gift of a copy of her scrapbook – which is amazing to read. She will be over in the UK for the Olympic boxing and also back to Hull for a visit.
What did you learn from the girls you shot for the project – and their reasons for doing it?
I was amazed to see so many women and girls, from all walks of life, enjoying the sport. I learned that amateur boxing, unlike professional boxing, is about scoring points, rather than using sheer brute force. It’s about discipline, diet, concentration, technique, dedication, respect for your opponent and being part of something.
Technically is was a very difficult project to shoot. I use no flash, the subjects are moving, the environments are either fluorescent-lit gyms or dark working men’s clubs or bright sports auditoriums with lots of distractions, and there are rules about being ringside. I also recorded the sounds of the boxers, the gyms, and made audio interviews. All this material I made into photofilms which are shown at the exhibitions.
Where next for the project? (or your photography?)
After the exhibition in Bradford, Girls in the Ring opens at The Ferens in Hull in August.