Branded the “rape capital of the world” in 2010 by Margot Wallström, the former special representative on sexual violence to the UN, the Democratic Republic of Congo – particularly the North Kivu province capital city Goma – has become a place many women fear. Rather than focusing on the horrors of sexual violence, Italian photojournalist Alessandro Grassini found how female victims have chanelled their experiences to a place of hope. He shares with the World Photography Organisation how he came to creating his series Boxing Against Violence: The Female Boxers Of Goma.
"I came to this project a little by chance. I was on assignment for an NGO that runs several clinics in and around Goma to help support people, especially women, who have suffered extreme violence. North Kivu is the most violent region in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital. Working for the NGO and photographing these victimised women I listened to their stories. I was impressed by their strength, they wanted to improve their living conditions even though they’ve suffered terrible violence. Instead of reducing these women to be victims (once again) in my project, I wanted to empower them. Wanting the right angle for the story I came across a boxing club.
I decided to create posed single portraits rather than a more traditional documentary project as this is a story about power and emancipation rather than sport. The images show women who are trying to, through sport, communicate a message to others that we can fight to improve our society and introduce gender equality. They are not professional boxers but soldiers. Here, women not only learn to throw punches, but to regain strength and the desire to fight against injustice. While I encountered these women and listened to their experiences I saw them as superheroes. My decision to use flash (even in daylight) and ask the subjects to pose in a particular way is a similar aesthetic to what you see in comic books.
My experience during the Sony World Photography Awards ceremony and exhibition opening was excellent. It was useful to talk to so many journalists as it allowed me to better understand my work – they asked questions about my images I don’t think I’ve considered before. Being a category winner in the Professional competition for the Sony World Photography Awards is so important to me. Today there are so many photography competitions to enter but most of them don’t provide the same exposure and ongoing support as the Awards. I won an award six years ago and the World Photography Organisation has been following my career throughout that time."