Humanizing A Hero: Ali

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Considered one of the most important icons in American history, Muhammad Ali– previously known as Cassius Clay – has traditionally been remembered for his eminent athleticism and as “Sampson of boxing”. Nonetheless, he has also signified a deeper symbolism to those who understand his greatness beyond the quickness of his feet and the heavy hook of his uppercut.

October 1st, 2013, Milk Studios held an exhibit in their gallery showcasing noted photographs taken by Germany-born-New-York-made photographer, Thomas Hoepker, who had the opportunity to travel with Ali during the momentous height of the boxer’s career. From capturing the raw talents and unforgettable moments of his swift and cocky attitude in the ring to his controversial position on U.S. politics abroad and at home, Hoepker’s unique timeline of Ali’s life in the 60s has provided the public with details of America’s Greatest with great openness. However, what truly made Milk Studio’s Gallery of Ali so remarkable was not necessarily indulged in the moments when the boxer showed off his physical prowess in front of anyone who was patient enough, but of times where we are able to see Ali as an ordinary citizen.

As a photographer, I can appreciate a high-resolution print, sprinkled with depth of focus, impressive exposure and appropriate aperture levels. But what interests me the most is how the shooter views their subject and what they would like for their spectators to see from this newfound candid visibility. For Hoepker, he phenomenally portrayed Ali as not only a contender inside the ring, but a protector of his people in the streets of forgotten America. Photographs showing the boxer engaging with communities that had went previously unseen by politicians, media and print journalists offered viewers of Hoepker’s work access to Ali on intimate levels that could not have been accessed by any other means. And through this means of visual art, we are now able to see the boxer beyond his gloves and medals and gain deeper understanding of him as a human being.

Stripping away the celebrity cape that Ali wore so proudly throughout his career as The World’s Greatest, Hoepker’s prints have given the boxer the human qualities of which other photographs deprive him, as well as present him in a way that represents honest portrayals of black masculinity. While there is a stigma associated with black male athletes and the sports industry in the commodification of black bodies that are seemingly bought and traded between teams owned predominantly by white males, Ali’s overall character has negated these misconceived notions that both predate and succeed him. His political involvement with the anti-war movement, the Nation of Islam and his own crusade against staggering levels of poverty in Black American neighborhoods provide the public with an alternate perspective of what black masculinity can look like and what black men in the public eye can do for their communities as leaders and role models for youth.

I personally loved Hoepker’s exhibit of Ali and thought of it as a great addition to the progressive Milk Studio Gallery. It was well executed, organized and diverse enough to get a real sense of the man who believes “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.”

Photo credit: Shane Miller

Nancy Musinguzi is a freelance writer, photographer, spoken wordist, and political artist located in Long Island City, NY. A recent graduate from Rutgers University, she hopes to pursue an MFA in Directing and use film as a tool of social commentary and activism in the arts. She enjoys reading, writing provocative prose, watching movies, meeting new people, and seizing every opportunity to learn more about the world around her.