My grandfather boxed - middleweight. He remembered the days when the
game was dirty in the ring and dirtier when you went bare knuckle. He
talked about sleeping with a knife under his pillow down in the Big
Smoke. He had mastered the tricks: the real ones about survival, not
sportsmanship. When I knew him, he had long ago stopped fighting, but
he still had that walk - middleweight: oddly light for his size, fluid,
changed his mind, too. He told me he only ever lost one fight, his
first. That time he had gone into the ring afraid and beaten himself.
His opponent only had to step in and finish the job - which was my
lesson right there, the one he intended me to learn: be unafraid. Not
because the bad things won't happen, but because they will happen
It seems we still expect our men to fight: it's the
damaging escape we offer our poor, our minorities or the ones who are
probably broken anyway; it's the bad thing we hurry heroes to; it's the
dress uniforms and traditions, the force-multipliers; it's a shine of
honour, bravery, taking your lumps, saving your mates.
And here, in these photographs Nicolai Howalt took in Denmark,
are the boys who would be fighters, caught by a man who also boxed.
Here are the faces, the bodies, before and after their formative
fights. They begin by wearing the shape of an idea, their
interpretation of the fight posters, the movies, the portraits on the
gym walls - the one dropped shoulder, the wary eyes, stiff mouths and
heads full of theory: the whip and twist of proper blows, the rhythms
they hope to impose, the power that's intended to coil from the hips -
from children's hips, from people who aren't allowed to drive yet,
drink yet, marry yet - but they can fight. They have edged themselves
up against their fear and do not quite understand being hit, being hurt
by strangers and no one there to help you but yourself. Because no one
can understand that - it has to be felt.
It is a whole new loneliness.
course, it's easy to project on to a photograph. We all have opinions
about violence, the best ways to raise children, establish values, the
nature of reality.
I can only say what I see. And somehow I am
only half-surprised that the first pictures show me boys and the second
not men - that would be inaccurate - but adults. Between the two
exposures, in their own ways, these faces have learned a lesson of
reality: that it is full of physics, torsion, contrecoups, nerves and
bones, velocities and meat. They have learned they are meat, fallible
and apt to die. Bad things will happen - even in victory - and they
will be unstoppable. These are unbearable things to know and yet we
should know them, because they are true. The signs of these hurts are
how we recognise each other: that we're grown- ups, have a human
nature. And we can decide whether our hurts make us predators, or
victims, or something beyond those limits - compassionate.