10 minutes with David Chancellor
When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?
My earliest memory is that of my father marching us around the island of Guernsey, camera in hand, a row of little leather pouches on the camera strap around his neck holding all manner of meters, flashes, and associated photographic gadgets. We spent many hours standing completely still whilst he executed the most beautiful portraits of us all on Kodachrome. There was always great excitement when they arrived in the post, which inevitably resulted in a slide show. I always remember the cursing and swearing as the carousel clunked and ground its way through the selected images. The projector screen would sit in the corner of the living room until we traveled again.
As soon as I was able, I picked up the camera, and starting taking pictures of all and everything around me. To me it seemed like I’d had the approval, the ‘nod’ to do this and so off I went. I wasn’t that successful, he seemed to work well with all the pouches, I didn’t. I remember he bought a Praktika MTL3, far more technical than what he was used to, and I happily and frequently fell heir to it. This camera just seemed to work for me. My first project was documenting the butchers and traders in the Bull Ring Market in Birmingham City centre. I’d travel there every weekend taking portraits on the Saturday, process the film and return the next week to sell the pictures to the sitters. I was still at school and shy, and it seemed to me that this was a good place to become more confident. I became quite well known around the market and as a result began to pick up commissions and occasionally sold images to the local newspaper, for almost nothing of course, but that wasn’t the point, I had an audience, people liked my work, and all I was doing was enjoying myself, how much better could it get… Suddenly I was in heaven, everything made sense, all I had to do each and everyday was take pictures…
Who were some of the first photographers that inspired you?
Wow..many many photographers have, and do inspire me. From early in my career Don McCullin was a huge inspiration, as was (and still is, I saw his work again recently in foam in Amsterdam) Sabastiao Salgado, Peter Beard and many many others. One of my lecturers at Art College was Terence Donovan, he was an enormous influence on both life and career, physically imposing, a judo black belt, both a film maker and photographer. I remember talking with him about wanting to be a sports photographer, my passion at the time, his response was typically forthright and I believe that push has kept me moving forward ever since like a breeze on the sails of a toy boat..
Tell me about your project, Boxers. Its incredible not only to see their expressions change and their new injuries but even seeing the tone in their skin change after a fight, what gave you the idea to shoot them before and after?
Boxers came about after a friend asked me to photograph his boxing match. A lot of my work is concerned with rites of passage, both hunters, and umkwetha deal with this subject to some degree, and I believe this work also does. I’d heard all about white collar boxing, and even seen ‘before and after’ work on professional boxing, however, all the work I’d seen concentrated on the ‘obvious’ physical changes as a result of a fight, black eyes, broken noses, and so on. When I watched him fight (and I didn’t photograph him the first time) it was the less obvious, more subtle changes that intrigued me, exactly as you say, skin colour changes, physical height (they actually look smaller after a fight) muscle definition, and the emotional effect of being subjected to combat for possibly the first time in their lives, that manifested itself so physically on their form, that’s what I wanted to explore with this work…
In most cases the fighters knew each other well, they trained together. In some cases brother decided to fight brother, and father cheered on son.
In order to undertake this work I needed to introduce something that allowed the viewer to read the subtle changes, and of course get the permission of the boxers themselves to portray them seconds before they go into the ring, and seconds after the fight, win or lose. So I built a ‘studio’ in the corner of the changing room out of old wooden tables placed on their ends, a reference to old gentleman’s sporting clubs with paneled walls, fixed a seat to the floor so that height and distance remained constant, and finally locked down the camera position.
The subjects in these portraits had no previous experience of boxing.
White Collar Boxing is a form of boxing where men and women in white collar professions train to fight at special events, bouts are usually three 2-minute rounds, unlike the longer 3×3 minutes in the Amateur Code for men, and 4 x 2 minutes for woman. 16 oz. gloves are standard in the white collar boxing ring in order to protect competitors from heavy blows and hand injuries. Some gyms permit 14 oz. gloves as well for lighter weight classes and female competitors. Headgear, groin protectors, and mouth guards are also required inside the ring.
In the townships of South Africa boxing is common place, in the cities it’s become the sport of choice for the young professionals from all walks of life who train for three months to fight in front of hundreds of people. The names they choose to fight under, an indication of their ambitions the ring.
If you could go back ten years, what advice would you give yourself?
Everything we do previously defines who we are right this second, giving myself advice with the benefit of hindsight would not be a good plan.
Any words of wisdom for the up and comers?
Eve Arnold said the following:
If the photographer is interested in the people in front of his lens, and if he is compassionate, it’s already a lot. The instrument is not the camera but the photographer.
What I’d add is that photography is a very powerful tool, treat it with respect and it’ll open doors that keys don’t exist for..
That’s more than enough wisdom.
(David is based in Cape Town, South Africa. See more of his work, here)