As an action and sports photographer who grew up boxing, Nikon European Ambassador, Ray Demski, had always been drawn to Bukom - a small neighbourhood in Accra, Ghana, which has produced an exceptional number of world champion boxers. Through his Special Project with Nikon, Ray unearths the mystery behind the Bukom boxing scene; planning for a sports action story, but coming away with something much deeper.

Q: Why did you choose Ghana and, more specifically, Bukom, for your Special Project?

My teens were spent travelling the world with my family on a sailboat, and each time we anchored, my brothers and I would seek out and train with a local martial arts master or club. In many ways, it was our key into the community, a very organic way to connect with the locals.

Growing up doing boxing and martial arts around the world, I had heard stories about the striking number of world champion boxers coming from Ghana’s capital, Accra. Yet there always seemed to be a great mystery to this place.

In my career as a photographer, I have shot many different sports but never really taken the time to focus on boxing. I was curious to explore Bukom, to understand the truth about the stories of my youth. I wanted to get under the skin of the culture and meet the kids and legends that train there, so I could finally understand what it is about this place that produces such great athletes. That’s why, when I was given the opportunity to pursue a passion project as part of my role as a Nikon Europe Ambassador, it had to be this.

Q: What was it that fascinated you about the Bukom boxers?

It’s a tough neighbourhood, and the Ga people who live there have a long tradition of fighting. But what really fascinated me was the role boxing gyms play in building a strong sense of community; it was really powerful to see.

There are so many boxing gyms in such a small space – I heard upwards of 30. We only scratched the surface visiting seven of the most notable ones. Boxing is such a huge part of daily life– everyone has their favourite local champion, watches their fights and turns up to support them in training– it’s hugely inspiring. In Bukom, the moment you become a champion boxer, you are the most respected person in the town.

Q: What is the environment like in Bukom and how did you look to capture this on camera?

Ghana is situated near the equator so, naturally, it was very hot and the humidity was high, but bearable. Bukom is a packed urban area and it´s never quiet – around every corner there is always something going on. Constantly sweating and finding yourself in places with no running water, open sewage and a salty sea breeze (tinged with the fumes of smoking fish) is part of being in Bukom.

I was surprised by the incredible natural light. Looking at the weather report before I know we should have had a nice mix of cloud and sun, but it was better than I could have imagined. The sun would punch through the clouds and haze and create this incredible diffused but still directional wrap around light.

Some of the gyms didn’t have roofs and an open sky filled with clouds was a stunning background. However, I think the biggest factor for me was the people. What began as a sports photography project quickly became far broader; a piece about the community and the people. In contrast to my typical action work, suspended high up a cliff face in complete isolation, each day I was meeting countless new people with different stories. For those two weeks, the boxers and coaches allowed me and my assistant Jakob to become part of their world with a generosity that was humbling.

Q: How many boxers did you focus on?

The initial plan was to focus on three or four individuals, but as soon as we arrived we knew this would multiply. I ended up shooting over 40 athletes and coaches.

While I was there, two of the area’s most popular boxers, Bukom Banku (Braimah Kamoko) and Bastie Samir were gearing up for a fight at the Bukom boxing arena. I connected with both of them – Bukom Banku is a real personality in the community, with a rockstar vibe, while Bastie Samir was more the focused athlete. Part of his unique training regime with national team coach, Ofori Asare, involves sparring with four Boxers at once – a barrage of fists.

What was remarkable was that each athlete would have a circle of fans, singing and cheering to drive him on while they trained. It was incredible to see the energy and support the people give.

Q: How did the Bukom boxers react to you being there and taking their photos?

I always try and be respectful of a new situation. A lot of people in the streets of Bukom don’t want their picture taken, or they ask money for a photo. I looked to locals to understand what was considerate.

Most of the athletes want to break out from Ghana and get on to the world stage, so if I can give them some visibility that´s great. I started by connecting with the head coaches at each gym, so they could explain to their athletes my role and purpose. I also worked with the support of the team at “Bukom Boxing News” whose cameraman Nii Nortei accompanied us, and sports writer Sammy Heywood Okine. Between them, they know the scene inside out. We always felt safe in what is a very rough area.

It also helped that I have boxed myself, so I understand the sport as well as the language and rhythms associated with it. This helped me get as close to the action as possible without disturbing the athletes (and without getting a punch in the face myself!).

Q: Your images have a certain look and feel – did you take a certain creative approach to achieve this?

This isn’t the first time the story of the Bukom boxers has been told, however, I wanted to show the boxers my way, to elevate them as heroes – the way they are seen by their local communities. It’s arguably a more artificial approach but, at the same time, the resulting images capture a romantic and emotional view of the athletes that I feel is very real.

There is no difference between the way I shot these boxers and the other pro athletes or world champions I have been lucky enough to photograph in my career. I often used a flash in a soft box for lighting, carried by my assistant so we could move with the athletes without interrupting them in training. This helped me get close to real action while controlling the light. This way, the viewer can feel every punch and see every bead of sweat that files off their bodies on impact - that’s what action photography is all about.

Q: How did you prepare for a project like this?

I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go in Bukom but because the timing of the project was quite short – only 13 days on the ground – planning and pre-preproduction was imperative.

I had a three to four-month research period and it was during this time that I got in touch with a local media company at the heart of the boxing scene – “Bukom Boxing News” as well as local sports writer Sammy Heywood Okine. They were both a big support in introducing me to the community, and pointing out which gyms and boxers could be interesting to photograph.

Working with a fixer from Accra, was key to handling the press permissions required to photograph and handling customs for the large amount of equipment we brought for the shoot.

With this level of preparation, my team and I could really hit the ground running and maximise our time in Accra.

Q: What challenges have you faced?

It was a tight production, so organising the limited amount of time with the many people I was hoping to photograph and interview was a struggle, especially as I was producing a film alongside the still images. However, I quickly learnt that in a place like Accra, you have to go with the flow. Have a goal in mind but let events unfold naturally, much like sailing actually. As long as you’re ready and waiting with your camera to capture those magic moments when they appear, that’s what counts.

Another challenge (as it often is) was deciding when to make still photographs and when to film. As the photos were the main focus, this usually came first, but with a subject packed with so much action and a place with such a character, I always wanted to do both! Thankfully having Jakob Schweighofer along as assistant and 2nd cameraman meant we could work together to achieve both.

Q: What was your favourite moment shooting your Nikon Special Project?

I encountered so many great people and interesting stories, it’s always hard to pick one moment. However, on our way to the airport on the very last day, we decided to stop once more at the Charles Quartey boxing foundation, a gym with no roof which, alongside a training space, is also home to several children in the area.

Although this was one of the roughest gyms we visited, it was one of the most welcoming. Head Coach, Charles Quartey, is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. A boxer in his youth, he put a lot of what he made in his fighting career into the gym and now works on the side to help support the gym and provide food and schooling to the children he has taken in. When we arrived on this last day of our trip, we found him standing in the centre of the gym with his boxers – from young children right up to current champions – running in a circle around him. He was pushing them hard, but at the same time, had a massive smile on his face. You could see and feel the pride he took in his boxing family.

As the sun went down over the roofless gym, I caught this magical moment – his smile amongst a blur of young boxing talent.

Q: What factors impacted your choice of equipment and how did your kit help you on your trip?

This was the first time I had used the D850 for a project like this. The commercial side of my work and an eye for detail means I am always striving for higher resolution and image quality. The D850 struck the right balance between resolution, dynamic range, usability, speed and mobility, all in one body. It was extremely suited to my style of shooting, delivering that high-end quality from a rough and fast paced shooting environment.

I also valued the usability in switching between stills and video. We did a lot of filming work during the two weeks, so to be able to jump to video with a clear separation of settings was super handy. As you can imagine, the 120 fps slow-motion setting was awesome for capturing some of those hard-hitting punches!

Lens-wise, I used primes for a lot of the project, One of my favorite lenses, the AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.4G ED, was great for getting close and wide right inside the action, showing the determination in the eyes of these athletes while capturing every detail.

The AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E ED is a new favourite of mine – the quality is second to none and, when capturing some more close-up portraits, it offered an incredible bokeh. I used it a lot for filming the interviews. My go-to lens has to be the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED. It’s fast, flexible and on such a fast-paced shoot, never let me down.

Q: What message do you hope to deliver with this project?

I went to Ghana with plans for a sports action story and came away with something much deeper – a story of a boxing community that has produced, and will continue to produce, some of the best athletes out there. I just hope this project helps give back something to the area and the communities there. They welcomed me into their world and allowed me to see their work from a completely unique perspective. I hope the resulting images help bring the visibility that these incredible athletes deserve.

Q: What advice would you give photographers looking to undertake a similar project?

I love my action and adventure work, but taking time to explore a personal project that takes you back to your roots is important. Boxing and martial arts was such a large part of my upbringing, but something I had put on the back burner for a long time. It was very special to photograph a community defined by its passion for boxing. It challenged me in ways I couldn´t have guessed and in many ways, reminded me why I love being a photographer!

For anyone looking to undertake a similar project, remember that personal work is just as, if not more, important than commercial work. You need to take time to do things that come from you and return with images that really speak to you, and which will hopefully become a precious part of your portfolio.

Q: What does it mean to you to be able to be a Nikon European Ambassador and work on a project such as this?

I’m very grateful to Nikon – to have the chance to carry out a personal project with support like this is amazing. I think it speaks to Nikon’s values that they support photographers in this way. As someone who demands quality and durability, Nikon’s camera bodies and lenses have defined my career. I couldn’t have done this project without them.