Downtown Boxing Gym helps French photographer focus on new book depicting African history

Downtown Boxing Gym helps French photographer focus on new book depicting African history
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Award-winning French photographer Nicolas Henry is finishing his latest international project, Worlds in the Making, at the Downtown Boxing Gym.

Henry has traveled around the world to create his latest book, which depicts African history – from slavery to freedom. It will include a series of photographs and exhibitions presenting stories from more than 13 countries and celebrating the diversity of the world’s cultures and ethnicities.

Henry’s assistant, Mohamed Aroussi, cuts leaves out of cardboard that will be used to make trees and foliage for pictures taken at the gym. Photo by Nicolas Henry

While at the nonprofit Downtown Boxing Gym, which emphasizes books before boxing, he is teaching its students valuable lessons about history and diversity and providing hands-on training in photography and set design. The students are also modeling in many of the photos.

“From a technical standpoint, we are hoping our students learn how to use Photoshop, build a set, and learn how to maneuver different lights to enhance a photograph,” says Katie Anderson, Downtown Boxing Gym’s academic director. “We’re also hoping they’re inspired by experiencing photography in a new way.

“Our students who have access to art classes in school generally love their art classes, but very few have had the exposure that Nicolas can provide in terms of showing them all of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into just one photograph. For those of our students who do not have access to art classes in school, it has already been really incredible to see how interested and engaged they are in the photography process,” she says.

Henry will be in residence at the gym through mid-November building elaborate, larger-than-life sets and taking photographs reenacting milestone moments in history.

Many southern slaves fled to Detroit and Canada by ship. This photo was taken at the Downtown Boxing Gym.
Photo by Nicolas Henry

One recent photo included floor-to-ceiling trees, foliage, and even a horse, made from painted cardboard.

Another image included a boat he built in the boxing gym’s garage, which has been temporarily transformed into a studio.

“It’s a story that goes from Africa to America,” Henry says. “It speaks about segregation in different ways in community history. Also, I am celebrating some of the black heroes who were freedom fighters against slavery. I’m trying to make a story that brings communities together.”

Henry is known for combining community engagement and personal expression with photography, theater techniques, cinema lighting, and handmade prop and set design in his work.

Born in France, he is a graduate of Les Beaux Arts de Paris and was trained in the cinema industry as a fiction director at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, Canada.

Freedom and creativity made their way into the neighborhoods in a tribute to the Heidelberg Project. Photo by Nicolas Henry

Henry has traveled around the world, exhibiting his work in New York, Japan, Nepal, Nigeria, Korea and Argentina. For his current project, he also took a series of photographs in Chicago and collaborated with nonprofit group The Arts Palette.

An exhibition of the Detroit and Chicago photos is being planned for 2019.

“We are also hoping our students will learn a bit about their own history through the Civil Rights and abolitionist themes that are showcased in this project, as well as African American heroes they may not have learned about yet, such as Harriet Tubman and Mary Prince,” says Anderson.

Click here to learn more about Nicolas Henry’s work

Lead photo: Award-winning French Nicolas Henry poses with his boat at the Downtown Boxing Gym.

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