Walthamstow photographer Katherine Green captures the true heroes of sport

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: © Katherine Green – National Portrait Gallery/BT Road to 2012 Project © Katherine Green – National Portrait Gallery/BT Road to 2012 Project

Last week marked one year until London becomes the focus of the world: the start of the 2012 Olympic Games. In a glamorous event in Trafalgar Square, foreign dignitaries hob-nobbed with parliamentary ministers and veteran athletes as the competitions’ medals were unveiled by the Her Majesty The Queen.

Away from the pomp of the champagne-soaked celebration, in back-street Bethnal Green boxing clubs, Mile End running tracks and strip-lighted Abbey Wood sports centres, the real stars of the games were preparing too.

They do so every week, not for political prowess or world standing, not for status or endorsements, not even for a medal round their neck – but for the love of sport itself.

Walthamstow resident Katherine Green has spent the last year photographing these often overlooked sporting heroes for an exhibition, Road To 2012, which has opened at View Tube, a gallery in the shadow of the new Olympic Stadium in Stratford.

“I always like to give a profile to forgotten groups, to the voices not being heard,“ explains Katherine whose past projects have included a series on the shopkeepers of Wood Street, E17, and the last days of Walthamstow Dog Track.

“There‘s so much unrecognised work done by the people who run these sports groups. Usually they‘re doing it off their own back, not to make money and in their own time.

“It‘s hard for them in the poorer boroughs of east London – but these are really passionate people, working long hours and incredibly hard.“

The project is ongoing, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery and BT, and includes a website, updated regularly, with new images from other top photographers as well as audio.

From promising teenage boxers to aspiring wheelchair athletes, Katherine‘s portraits reveal the person behind the gloves, racquet or paddle.

“I always try and capture a sense of pride and achievement,“ she explains. “I always try to portray them really positively; put a spotlight on people in a positive way.“

The promotional shot for the exhibition is of Luqmaan, a young hopeful from Repton Boxing Club.

“The club was one of the friendliest places we‘ve been to,“ says Katherine whose work since graduating from St Martins has focused on communities and what bonds them. “I really like the photo for the fact his gloves are down. Usually, as soon as you pulled out the camera the boxers raised their fists.

“But in this one, I think he looks slightly vulnerable. I like that.“

Describing herself as a social documentary photographer, Katherine works quickly to get her images.

“Like a lot of people I hate having my photo taken, so I like to almost not be noticed. A lot of times I have to work fairly fast and I‘m working with really bad light, but I don‘t have a big set-up – I try to keep things quite natural.“

Alongside the images, Katherine has been collecting oral histories from her subjects as they share their hopes and aspirations.

“As a photographer you have a lot of power, or could have, in the way you portray people. I find the oral history just as important – it gives people a real voice.“

With the Olympics just around the corner, is Katherine hoping she may have photographed a future gold medallist?

“Some of the young boxers were definitely aspiring Olympians, which is exciting. But it‘s never been about fame or stardom – it‘s just as important to get the 80-year-old table tennis enthusiast. That‘s what this project is all about.“

Road To 2012 is at View Tube, Pudding Mill Lane, Stratford until October 2. Open daily, 9am to 5pm.

Details: www.katherinegreen.co.uk

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