Intimate Portraits of Mexico City’s Boxing Community
First-generation Mexican American photographer David Hanes-Gonzalez first started attending amateur boxing matches with his father in Chicago as a teenager, but it was later, during the pandemic, that he would start pursuing the sport himself in Miami. It was in his mid-20s that he pursued another passion: photography. Using the camera as a means of expression and a tool to discover more of the world, he cut his teeth in concert and portrait photography. Describing the camera as his “travel companion”, Hanes-Gonzalez now specialises in lifestyle and documentary photography in particular.
His interest in the latter has resulted in the photo series No Te Dejes, meaning don’t give up or back down – a common phrase used in Mexican boxing. After relocating to Miami, Hanes-Gonzalez lived behind a famous boxing gym formerly home to Muhammad Ali. Looking to get exercise and pick up self defense skills, he found himself drawn to boxing in particular and after months of training, he merged two of his passions together by bringing his camera to the gym to document champion boxers and their training camps. An interest in boxing developed into, what he calls, an “obsession” and he travelled to Mexico City for a nine-day trip, only to end up documenting Mexican boxers across three months, and then two years.
Having recently exhibited the series, we caught up with Hanes-Gonzalez to trace his journey and talk about the culture and shared sense of community he found in the boxing ring.
This documentary project was spread out over two years. Can you walk me through the process?
I thought this project would be only nine days, but I quickly learned that Mexican boxing is too big of a story that needed time and attention. I wanted to build a project that would be accepted, appreciated and championed by the boxing community. In order to do so I knew I needed to not only take photos but be a part of the boxing community. Which meant spending time with them, training with them and sharing meals together. This allowed trust and access that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. This allowed me to create authentic images and images that came from a place of respect and love which separates my images from other photographers. In a world where AI photography is becoming more common, I believe documentary and long-term projects will become more valuable.
I started by training at a local park and asking my coaches to bring me to local fights. With each time I took photos I would meet other boxers and trainers asking me for the photos I took. I would explain to them my project and would get invited to take photos at their gym. This created a snowball effect.
How often did you photograph the boxers and what was it like working with them?
I took photos weekly. If I wasn't taking photos I was training. The boxing community in Mexico is very warm and extremely nice. A very welcoming group of people who all share the same passion and mission.
Why did you choose to shoot in black and white in particular?
While Mexico is a country full of colour I didn't want colour to distract from the feeling in my images. It also gives a classic vibe as I'm very inspired by old Muhammad Ali taken by photographer Neil Leifer.
Can you highlight your favourite image from the series and tell us the story behind it?
My favourite image is of boxer Esmer Falcon and her boxer doll. She was the first boxer I documented two years ago. I was invited to take photos of one of her fights by her coach. After warming up before her fight she spent several minutes alone absorbing the moment with her doll. I quickly took several shots and captured an authentic moment and story of her journey as a boxer. When Esmer first started boxing she didn't receive any support from her family because she is a woman. A close family friend was the only person who believed in her and gifted her a doll months before her quinceanera. Her family friend passed away months later.
As a good luck charm and a dedication to the person who first believed in her, Esmer brings her doll to every fight. This image tells the story of Esmer's transition from a young girl to an incredible boxer, and one of the top amateur fighters in Mexico.
Can you recall a highlight from this series?
The most memorable has been all the boxer and trainer relationships that I have developed across the city. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to know them. My favourite memories are whenever I can share meals with boxers or trainers after a training or photo session because it provides an opportunity to get to know them on a personal level. One moment in particular was when a trainer invited me to his home after a training session. He mentioned his wife makes the best fish tacos, so of course I jumped at the opportunity and ate with his extended family together.
What’s unique about Mexican boxing culture in particular?
In Mexico, boxing is not just a sport, it is a religion. To step foot in the boxing ring you must have guts, courage and a warrior spirit. For Mexican boxers, boxing is about honour and national pride. You have to be brave. It is being willing to receive two hooks to give a good one. Boxing, like corn, is intertwined with Mexican culture. A famous fighting style defined by having more heart and always moving forward.
What were some of the learnings you’ve gained from working on this project?
On a personal level, I learned that dedication, discipline and consistency are keys to success. Showing up everyday. Improving little by little in all aspects of life. From a photography perspective, I learned that long-term documentary projects provide the opportunity to really get to know your subject in order to create the best images. The two year journey was the best part and exhibiting my work was a nice result of my experience.