‘Athleta: one who is giving his all in an effort to overcome a sporting challenge, but, even more so, in an effort to surpass himself.’ Sport can come across as a hobby, a necessary evil to keep fit and healthy or, as a profession, a pursuit for fame. Athleta, with its minimalist cover of a locker room inhabited by two standing prosthetic legs, conveys it has something different to say. More pointedly, it has a better story to tell.
Live sport, in all its quickness, often displays its prowess through actions which are fast, skilful and barely glimpsed; one blink and the goal is scored, the punch is made, the battle won. It’s the bolt of energy that our eyes clamour for, to produce in ourselves the ecstasy of achievement. What Athleta calmly shows is the human behind achievement, the journey they have made to get there to give you such a snap of joy. Television might give you immediate action replay, but photography allows pause and contemplation; fractional moments captured for consideration, not a blurry outtake. Victory is so sweet, especially when you know the effort and pain that has gone into gaining it.
Athleta ultimately comes across as very human and it’s a tribute to those, whatever gender, ability, nationality, who pursue self-betterment in their selected sport.
An entirely Italian publication, the text is split between Italian and English translation. The translation is clunky at first, a heavy footfall, with abrupt sentences which make you want to read them twice. Some might be put off by dual language at first glance because it might be the first thing you see when you flip through, or that it represents you’re only really going to be buying half a magazine. The biggest fear comes from the awareness that if you don’t know the language the content will have a cultural slant that doesn’t communicate, even with translation. Rest assured, after Athleta’s uphill struggle, clunking through gears, gingerly gaining fluency with the odd wobble, the wording gets better. Simultaneously, I realised it is a sporting photography magazine; the words inform where the images might lack story or context. I cut them some slack.
It steps back enough to get your interest, then unleashes a festoon of imagery that keeps your eyes enthralled and your flingers flicking to the last page.
The series of photos featuring wheelchair fencer Bebe Vio portray her with profound candour, embracing her disability, as a part of herself which has fed her passion, triggered her strength and fight, and constructed her into a Paralympic gold medallist. These photos are artfully contrasted with classical statues, looming over with grim determination; they are often seen limbless, nonetheless striking and no less powerful or captivating to their spectators. Fencing elegantly captures that conversation, strength and suppleness making disability disappear. Even photographs of her parents looking bored at their phones as she practices, or at a café, wearing a t-shirt entitled ‘we are the champions’, drinking coffee, phone open; life goes on throughout success and hardship.
Onto The Phantoms of Los Angeles, an American football team, where the real challenge is not to win, but to become a man, and Alessandro Pittin, a Nordic Combined athlete, skiing through the wintery then lush terrain of Italy. The quality of the photography is always exceptionally high; they communicate story with ease and encapsulate an emotion with unassuming ease. The best of which can be seen in the feature on Thut Ti Lethwei Gym in Yangon, Burma.
Lethwei is one of the most brutal and aggressive forms of martial arts, where the hands are only taped with gauze; it’s close to bareknuckle boxing. The intention in the facial expressions, the movement of each hit, the muscle contorted, the spray of spit, the blood; it’s all enough to grab your attention and make you audibly say ‘wow’. Striking and colourful, it also reasserts the photographer’s displacement, that a westerner like him has come across an entirely opposite culture and finds it enthralling and frightening. The colour conveys the heat, a thousand faces staring at the raw and visceral fight, far from the clean and secure square boxing rings. A fight like that could be over in a few minutes, but the shots allow us to realise the expertise, strength and concentration it takes to survive.
Athleta shows sport as adventurous, a global fixation, and very intimate simultaneously. The personal struggle and the bliss of triumph is elegantly conveyed and constructed neatly without much pomp or ceremony. It steps back enough to get your interest, then unleashes a festoon of imagery that keeps your eyes enthralled and your flingers flicking to the last page.