And furthermore ...

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Thursday, 2 September 2010


“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.”
George Orwell

Unidentified photographer, England, C1920s, postcard

Consider this photograph of the two boxers and their five handlers. The man on the far right – he looks like a promoter – has a flicker of a smile; otherwise its stony faces all round, particularly on the face of the boy in the frayed knitted vest. He may be a boxer but something in his expression suggests thwarted ambition. The coach took one look at him stripped to his shorts and implied there were other ways he could be useful in the gym. The fighters are lightweights or featherweights and most probably amateurs. The picture, from England, looks as though a photographer from a local newspaper took it, perhaps on the afternoon of an otherwise obscure amateur contest. The location, the fighters and the photographer are unknown but this image tells you more about the cheap, grimy and bitter world of boxing than any shot of fighters in the ring snapped at 1/1000th of a second.

Unidentified photographer, "Navy Champs 1918", postcard

Action shots of athletes have their place in photography but it’s always been understood that if you want images that reveal something about motive, passion and the soul of a game you have to get off court, so to speak, into the change rooms and the gyms, and if you really want to photograph ‘sport’ the way people photograph ‘the family’, ‘the street’ or any other genre for that matter, you have to leave the cloistered world of top level championships with their obscene finances and tightly controlled marketing and head down, preferably to amateur level. There, among people who one day may just rise to the top, you find others who don’t quite understand yet what it is that draws them to the game or seem to know already their love is unrequited. Take the second boxing photo; it has a few absurd details to it – the wheelbarrow, the fighters’ attire – enough to let you know that whatever these two battle for won’t be much more than glory, and they both risk getting badly hurt in the process.

Unidentified Photographer, Turkey C1930s

Meanwhile, a Turkish footballer, a goalkeeper judging by his stance, tenses for the camera. No one involved in the photo seems aware of the elements combining to strip the shot of its intended authority and turn it into something better. This footballer has a few things in common with the boxers; maybe it’s the cap but he seems to realize that career wise, things won’t get much better than this moment.

Unidentified Photographer, Turkey C1930s

More Turkish footballers; two teams, the referee, linesmen and a couple of military officers cobbled together on some arid looking pitch with a distant mountain in the background. It comes from a time when people still believed the virtues of sport lay in physical exercise and team spirit and the game was the thing. Before, that is, the money men moved in and so many champions turned out to be coke addled half-witted predators.

15/2/1933, Harbiye, Istanbul

Pakistani cricketers caught in a match fixing scandal (again), Australian rugby league players facing (more) rape charges, footballers snared in drug stings, and we don’t need to mention cycling. The mystery, the drama, the heroism may have been depleted from sport yet it remains a resiliently glamorous industry. Meanwhile, one photo of a footballer heading a goal looks much like another, just as one champion’s face contorted in despair looks no different to any other. As a genre, sports photography only says something when the photographer quietly looks behind the scenes.

Unidentified Photographer, Turkey C1940s

Unidentified Photographer, Turkey C1940s
Unidentified Photographer, Turkey C1930s

Unidentified Photographer, USA C1940s

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