Force & Fragility: A story of young Cuban boxers by Carl Valiquet

A photo-essay by Carl Valiquet.

In the month of October 2002, I was walking in Jeanne-Mance Park in my hometown Montreal, Canada. In the middle of the park, was a football field. It was early evening and powerful mercury vapor lights lit up the meadow making it look like a green lake surrounded in darkness. At one moment, I heard a young voice shouting: “Hop one! … Hop two! … Hop three!”

Seconds later, the silence was once again broken by the thumping sound of shoulder pads making contact. I walked closer to the field to get a better glimpse of the football players. They were young boys, not older than 12 years old. The kids who been thrown to the ground by their opponents were slowly getting up lifting their young bodies weighed down by the heavy protection equipment. They resembled small giants.

One of them, who had been hit hard, was helped up by the adult coach who all the while was shouting: “Hop one!… Hop two! … Hop three! LET’S GO!”

On the other side of the wire fence I could distinguish the face of the “small giant” that had been hit hard. His features, lit by he harsh mercury vapor lights, showed a mixture of pride, contentment, insecurity and fear.


It is at that moment that another scene; similar to this one, came to my mind.

It was in Cuba, a few years before. A large and heavy set Cuban boxing coach was adjusting the protective helmet on the head of an eight-year-old boy about to enter the ring. In the eyes of this young Cuban boxer of the Raphael Trejo boxing center in Havana I saw the same mix of fear, anxiety, determination and courage that I saw in the eyes of the young Montreal footballer.

In both faces, I saw a combination of force and fragility.

It was while walking in the streets of Havana in 1999, that I came across the Rafael Trejo boxing club, named after a famous revolutionary who died fighting for his Country. At the entrance of the center many photos of well-known Cuban boxers are pasted on the cracked and decrepit walls; Cuban boxers who became famous like: Kid Chocolate, Eligio Sardinas and many others.

Senora Lucia Diaz, the manager of the center, explained to me that everyday after school, twenty or so boys came here to learn the sport. Many of the kids came from underprivileged families. Many practiced hard daily with the hope of one day becoming another “Kid Chocolate” and making enough money so his family can have a better life.

I returned to Havana one year later. This time my son, Dominique, came with me.

It was a cold and rainy day when we entered the Raphael Trejo Center. Water was dripping onto the boxing ring from the broken roof. Alberto, the coach, invited us to sit on plastic chairs in a dry corner of the hall. The dozen or so boys who were just hanging around sat down next to us, listening as I tried to explain in my broken Spanish that I wanted to do a photo story of the kid boxers.

Because of the political situation and complicated bureaucracy in Cuba, it is very hard for a foreign photographer to enter places like the Trejo center. I was starting to loose all hope of taking photographs when unexpectedly some boys started to fight with my son. Dominique replied and all of a sudden 5 or 6 boys were punching Dominique.

There was a lot of laughter.

It is at this moment that I felt that my son and I were part of the gang. Alberto agreed that I could spend a few days at the center while being very careful as not to make my presence known to the Authorities. For five days I would arrive at the boxing center after school hours and take photographs.

They say that boxing is one of the most photographed sports. The intensity of the facial expressions and the fast boxing moves are brief moments that a photographer must capture. The photographer must almost become a boxer himself. He must be quick and precise in order to capture the elusive moment. They say that the boxer Mohamed Ali was so fast that he could catch a fly in mid air.

I must say that it is a pleasure to take pictures of this sport that combines FORCE, AGILITY and sometimes FRAGILITY.

Carl Valiquet
June 2011.

You can see more of his work on his website, film website, or follow his blog.

Carl Valiquet was born in 1946 in Montreal, Canada. He began taking photographs at an early age. He opened his first commercial photo studio in nineteen-seventy. During his years of making a living as an advertising photographer, he traveled as much as time and money would permit him in order to pursue his passion for travel photography.

During a trek in Cuba in December 2000, Carl spent a week among a group of young Cuban boxers. He emerged from this voyage with a series of black & white images to which he added Havana’s urban sounds. The result of which is a short film titled: ‘El Ring’.

After this experience, Carl began creating films using a combination of stills and moving images to create short films. His most recent one is a 30-minute film that depicts the laborious struggle of workers living on different islands of Indonesia, titled “DAY IN DAY OUT” (view the trailer)

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