A Few Words With Thomas Hoepker

Now that the weekend is upon us, we’re down to the final hours to see Thomas Hoepker’s iconic photos of Muhammad Ali at Milk Gallery before the exhibition closes this Sunday evening. The collection is an unforgettable glimpse into the young champion’s life outside of the ring, as Hoepker travelled with Ali from a prize fight in London to the streets of Chicago and later to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. And even if you can’t make it into the gallery, you can always order your own signed copy of Hoepker’s Champ: Muhammad Ali as well as New York By Thomas Hoepker, a collection that represent more than 50 years of the German-born photographer’s relationship with his adopted city.

We were fortunate enough to talk with the former president of Magnum Photos on several occasions. Here’s what he told us.

On photographing Muhammad Ali:

"I travelled with my wife, who was a reporter for Stern magazine and we met him in his hotel suite in London. What we didn’t know at that point was that he had just converted to Islam, but a part of this was that he was kind of shy to talk to white women. This was not done. So it was an awkward situation: He had a reporter who was a white woman and wanted to ask him questions and he was OK, but in public he didn’t want to be seen with her.

"We soon found out this was the case and we switched our tactics. Rather than do a formal interview sitting down and asking questions, we simply said we’d hang out with him. And this proved to be very good for me because we were just following him or riding in a car with him, watching him in the gym, etc. rather than doing a brief interview and a few pictures and go away. And the more time I spent with him, the more interesting the man was."

On his preferred photography role:

"There’s a wonderful sentence about how a photographer should be a fly on the wall, looking at everything with his big eyes and seeing everything but not being seen. And I like that role — not becoming the center of the event, but being on the sidelines and observing. And that worked well with Ali. We never bothered him, but we were observant."

On recording famine in Ethiopia:

"I did a lot of stories on the problems of the third world, trying to be of help. There was a big famine in Ethiopia and we covered that in the beginning and we went back to Stern magazine and they told us this was so heartbreaking we have to do something about it. They did a big propaganda thing and tried to get money and they succeeded in collecting a lot of money for the people. We even sent the German air force to bring people medicine and food. I later went again and did a film of the same thing. We stayed in a little village for a month with these people and it was very heartbreaking. People were dying next to us. But it was always bearable because you always felt you could do something, not just observe."

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