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Photo from series “Izquierda, derecha, izquierda”
Photo from series “Izquierda, derecha, izquierda”Photography Safouane Ben Slama

Finding the next generation of Cuban boxers

Photographer Safouane Ben Slama captures the glory and elegance of Cuba’s local boxers and next generation fighters

Safouane Ben Slama's new series Izquierda, derecha, izquierda (Spanish for left, right, left) captures aspects of Cuban boxing – the sweat that sticks to a boxer's shirt, the training process, young boys with their fists positioned playfully in defiance, the wiry muscles that twist into strong arms, the blur of fighters in movement, and the tattoos embedded onto their skins. Through Ben Slama's lens, we're shown the beauty of boxing and the innocence of childhood depicted against the victorious stance of fighters. Rather than convey violence and brutality through his photos, Ben Slama captures elegance in the sport.

“It's important for me to introduce boxing as dramatic acting or a choreography. This sport is, for me, one of the most beautiful because it requires constant efforts, you have to be in a strong physical condition, you have to do the moves at the right moments. You have to train very hard and, at the same time, you have to show that fighting is easy for you. I find elegance in Muhammad Ali, Thomas Hearns or Teofilo Stevenson. I really enjoy the way they move, the way they hit, the way they hide pain.”

“I really enjoy the way they move, the way they hit, the way they hide pain” – Safouane Ben Slama

There's a wonderful dichotomy prevalent in this series of the ring being a theatre, yet Ben Slama focuses intensely on the nuances that make up the individuals, finding symbolism in small flairs. “What struck me when I took these pictures of boxers is the way they always took a fighting or victorious pose. Like in a role play... (there is the) staging of reality. In many pictures, I select parts of bodies to express something deeper than just a muscle or an impressive tattoo. In one of these pictures, we see a torn undershirt and I think it says a lot about (the intensity of) training and especially the personality of the boxer, his will. And from this point, we create a way to go beyond the damaged clothing.”

Boxing is, as these photos would show, such an important part of Cuban culture, yet it also differs from other cultures in the sport. “Cuban boxers win a lot of the amateur competitions (like the Olympic games) but for a long time, they couldn't fight as professionals.” The culture of boxing lives through legends in the community and young boys are nurtured to be fighters. With the contrast of the elders and the young, there's a deep sense of community and connection. “It was very fascinating because (the children) had the intense eyes of champions. They were maybe between five or six years old and they know all the tricks to act like a boxer. It was very interesting to see this mimesis, to imagine where they catch those moves... In all the series I have made I have always been interested in youth and games... Sports or games allow you to assert your personality but also to be out of yourself. It's very simple and can create strong links between people.”