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The Story Behind the Shot: ‘Boxing in Katanga’ by John T. Pedersen

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It’s Martin from the All About Street Photography YouTube channel, and today I would like to talk about a very special photo that ended up winning the 1st prize in the Sports, Singles category of the 2019 World Press Photo contest.

“Boxing in Katanga” is a photo was taken in May 2018 by John T. Pedersen, a photojournalist based in Oslo, Norway.

Pedersen has been working as photographer for a number of newspapers, trade press, magazines and agencies since 1988. He has covered many interesting stories, which you can check out on his website and Instagram.

I was fortunate enough to interview him about his photograph and how he was able to capture the moment that earned him a prestigious World Press Photo award.

The photo was shot with a Nikon D4 (one of the two D4s Pedersen was using at that time) and a Sigma 24mm f/1.4 lens. At the moment his camera of choice is the Sony a9. He also uses a Leica M9 camera for digital and sometimes the Leica M6 and Leica M4p for film.

The winning picture was selected from approximately 5 to 6 frames. What I like about his photography is that Pedersen edits his pictures as little as possible, which I think is very important in photojournalism.

Pedersen visited Uganda in 2018 to photograph stories of the South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, and he stayed for almost 3 weeks. Before he left, he spent his last 2 days in Kampala, where he photographed boxer Moreen Ajambo. The photo was actually not part of a bigger story.

One of the reasons for his visit was a very famous woman boxer Cecilia Brækhus (Cecilia Carmen Linda Brækhus), who represents Norway and who also visited Rhino Boxing Club in the past. As he had photographed Cecilia and the world of boxing several times before, he was curious to see what a boxing club in the heart of a “slum” would look like. His background helped him when he arrived at the Rhino Boxing Club in Katanga and was given permission to photograph there.

Pedersen says he chose to photograph Ajambo based on a recommendation by her coach, who told him she has a special story and is also a member of Uganda’s National Team. Moreen Ajambo is a 30-year-old woman and the mother of 7. She was born and raised in the Katanga slum and has never seen her biological father. Sadly, her mother and stepfather both died from AIDS.

Ajambo was forced to live on the streets and all the tough and painful experiences in the slums made her violent. Inspired by action movies, she began getting into fights. Rocky Balboa became her favorite movie and an inspiration. Then a local boxer told her to visit the boxing club, and after the first training session, she was determined that a boxer was what she wanted to become. Ajambo is now part of the national Uganda boxing team.

Photo by John T. Pedersen.

The biggest challenges for the female boxers are actually outside of the boxing ring. The ministry of education only supports few boxers that have been selected for the national team, and the local clubs receive no government funding.

Boxing is a path of hope and an opportunity for a better life outside the slum. What Pedersen wanted to show was the atmosphere and environment. If you have ever visited a boxing gym or any gym in general, you probably see that this is not like the gym you are used to.

When we look at the composition of the photo, we can see a wide area thanks to the 24mm lens, which includes the gym as well as the side street next to the containing kids. The kids are a nice element in the photograph not only because they balance the dark world of the adults, but also because their hand gestures contribute to the composition.

Pedersen wanted to capture Ajambo’s lonely fight for her future. One of the key elements is definitely the punch being thrown into the punching bag with a dollar sign. That’s what made the photo for Pedersen.

In terms of what he would he change in the composition if he could, Pedersen says the only things that annoy him are the legs of the person standing behind the bag. But on the other hand, it also makes the picture more vivid.

“Boxing in Katanga” is a beautiful photo that tells us that if you want to do something, no obstacle is too big to overcome. Ajambo fights for survival and hopes that one day she will be able to get herself and her kids out of the slum.

I asked Pedersen about his World Press Photo award.

“It is a great honor to receive such a generous award, and I am humbled by this,” the photographer replied. “But it’s not just about us photographer. It’s about the people we meet out there, the ones who let us into their life and share their stories, good and bad.

“As a photographer, it is important to show respect and humility. For me, the main tool is not my camera… but my voice, talking to the people you meet. If you want to get close to people, you must be able to communicate. And most importantly: Being a fellow human being.”


About the author: Martin Kaninsky is a photographer, reviewer, and YouTuber based in Prague, Czech Republic. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Kaninsky runs the channel All About Street Photography. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube channel.

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