By Chris Hedges / The Real News Network
Lori Grinker was just an art school student when she was assigned to shoot a project on young boxers under the guidance of legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. It was through this project that she met a 13-year-old Mike Tyson, whose career would blossom at the same time as hers. Throughout her decades as a photographer, Grinker’s work has spanned a range of historical topics, and often found political insight in deeply personal portraits. Lori Grinker joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss two of her books, Afterwar: Veterans from a World in Conflict and Mike Tyson.
Studio Production: Dwayne Gladden, Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
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Chris Hedges: I first encountered Lori Grinker’s remarkable work as a photographer in her book, Afterwar: Veterans from a World in Conflict, where a century of war is represented by and through portraits of individuals and their haunting stories. Her other books include Dear Grinkers, a photographic series on diaspora; Six Days from Forty, an installation revolving around her brother’s life and his death from AIDS; and A Portrait of Audrey and All the Little Things, which considers her mother’s struggles with cancer and dementia in documentary and still life images.
Grinker, for an art school photography assignment, was shooting a project on young boxers under the guidance of the legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. Her main focus was a nine-year-old boxer Billy Ham. While photographing him, Cus wandered over and asked why Lori was shooting Ham when the bigger kid in the corner working on a speed bag would one day be the heavyweight champion of the world. The kid was then a 13-year-old Mike Tyson.
Over the next decade, Lori photographed the coterie that surrounded Mike, Cus’s funeral, going home to Brownsville, old friends, trips abroad, in hotel suites before and after fights, his relationship with Robin Gibbons, their wedding, their divorce, and the training and fights in between until Tyson’s first defeat, the Buster Douglas fight in 1991.
Joining me to discuss her books Afterwar and Tyson is Lori Grinker. I saw a tie-in between the two books, having been very involved in war and a little involved in boxing. They’re very hyper masculine cultures, subcultures. They’re certainly about violence in one form or another. But they’re different in the sense that the Tyson book is about the rise, largely, of a great fighter, whereas Afterwar is really about the after effects of conflict, the wounds, internal and physical, that you carry. Let’s just talk a little bit about the concept behind Afterwar, what it is you were trying to do.
Lori Grinker: Well, I had gone to the Middle East to Israel and the West Bank in the ’80s, and I just got really interested to know what people from both sides were thinking and feeling. I found my way to Beit Halochem, which is like a veteran’s home where they had all kinds of physical therapy, but sports and programs for families. I got in and I started photographing there and I started interviewing people from each of the Israeli wars. I really wanted to know what it was like on the other side from the Intifada, from Lebanon, and I started interviewing people from those sides.
Then it opened up to all these wars. I got interested in Vietnam, veterans going back to Vietnam, looking for closure, meeting with the Vietnamese who were both in the North and the South, both who they fought with and fought against. I started to see how these people had more in common with each other after war than they did with some of the people they left back at home. It was this shared experience and the human cost of war that I wanted to document.
Chris Hedges: Well, some of the stories are pretty horrific, because there’s text describing their ordeal from physical wounds, from psychological wounds. Was there a commonality that you felt between all of these victims?
Lori Grinker: Clearly one commonality is that it never goes away. You live with it and it lives on in you for the rest of your life. You’re never the same person after. I think that for me, as somebody who would never experience war, I really wanted to understand what that was and to understand the mechanisms of all these wars. Instead of judging these people, no matter which side they were on, understanding what brought them there, whether it was the politics of the place, or they were poor people who had another no other way to get an education but join the military, people who were conscripted due to colonialism in World War II from West Africa; What brings people to war? It’s not always this black and white story. Not everybody that goes wants to fight. Not everybody that joins the military does it out of allegiance to their country, or because they want to be a hero. Often, because it’s the only way they can afford to get money and to get an education after. Then of course there are drafts.
The women were very interesting to me, because we didn’t know that much about women fighting, and why would women go to war? When I spoke to women in Eritrea who fought against the Ethiopians, and they said, well, we had no choice. They were raping our neighbors and killing our fathers. 40% of the fighting army in Eritrea were women, and they helped win the war. It gave me a really clear picture of the history of these wars, what it takes to recover, what kinds of therapies there are in all these different countries, how similar they all are. How so many veterans, like Vietnam veterans, would go back to other countries and really help veterans from the Troubles between Britain and Ireland and help them heal their wounds. It’s like this collective giving back, almost, for ever being in war, but then being on the side of peace and trying to help those people find peace within themselves.
Chris Hedges: That’s what Jung called the wounded healer.
Lori Grinker: Yeah.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about just a few of the pictures before we go onto the Tyson book. Is it Danny, is it Shemul?
Lori Grinker: Danny Shimoni.
Chris Hedges: Shimoni. Right. Talk about his situation.
Lori Grinker: Well, Danny Shimoni was somebody I met that time when I first went to the Middle East when I first stayed in Israel in 1986, I think it was. Could have been a little earlier. I had photographed him then when I first went, and he was swimming, diving in, and he was missing his ankles and feet. When I went back years later when I was actually working on this book, because then it was a story just about that center, I had to find him, and they helped me find him because they recognized his stumps, because you couldn’t see his head. It was him diving into the pool.
Chris Hedges: It’s on the cover of your book. Yeah.
Lori Grinker: He wanted to be in the project, and he was a manager at Hertz Rent A Car or something. He just talked to me about his experience. And he was in Lebanon, and I never got to go to Lebanon for the book, so we made the chapter just him. The picture became this very peaceful, meditative image of him floating, basically, in that because I couldn’t recreate him diving in. Of course, I interviewed each person, and he was very young, and I think most of those people just don’t really understand what they were fighting for in a lot of these situations.
Chris Hedges: Maria Latifa, you shoot her in Cuba.
Lori Grinker: Maria was one of the people who went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Along with Tina Modati the photographer, she helped start the international brigades. She had been a teacher of Che’s children, so that’s why there’s a picture of him in her house. She and her husband, I think they might have been kicked out of Cuba for their politics. Then they went to Spain to help fight in the Spanish Civil War.
Chris Hedges: Is it Hetock Ock, is that right?
Lori Grinker: Hatimock. In 1989, I got support from Life magazine to go to Vietnam with American veterans who are going back looking for closure. One group was bringing this prosthetic technology there. And this was in the North of Vietnam, and they were going to the villages and they set up labs. And it got more sophisticated as time went on, but they would fit each person’s stump at first and then go back to the United States, have these prosthesis made, and then go back and give them to the people. I had been there when they were going back, just by chance. I got to go with them. She had the new leg and she hardly used it. She was still using this heavy old wooden leg that they made there because she said she only had one of the American ones and she wanted to keep it for special occasions as if it was a pair of her nice shoes. She fought in the North against the Americans.
Chris Hedges: I like the book, having covered conflicts, because the people that you portray in the book, especially those who were grievously wounded, are pretty much rendered invisible by the wider society. We don’t see them, we don’t hear their story unless they’re willing to read from the kind of approved Fourth of July script.
Lori Grinker: I think after the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq, at least American veterans became more vocal. I think when there were so many problems at VA hospitals and problems with benefits, they became more vocal in that, and there were more people fighting for them for their rights, but I do think it’s still a bit under the radar. And I think some people just want to come back and get back to normal. It takes a while for many of them to see what they’re going through. When I’ve given talks, there are people who, through the stories of these veterans – And I guess I could read a couple of quotes if you wanted.
Chris Hedges: Sure, yeah.
Lori Grinker: They learned about their parents, their fathers, mostly, who never talked about their experience in Vietnam, but they began to understand it by reading other people’s stories in my book. That was very cathartic for them, and that really made my 15 years of documenting these stories worth it.
Chris Hedges: Why don’t you read the section about Oleg?
Lori Grinker: Okay, so Oleg was a Russian soldier who fought in Afghanistan, and he lost his hands, and he said, “I was brought up thinking that the capitalist countries and the communist countries were enemy, so when I joined the army, I believed I was defending our Soviet homeland. We thought we were helping people who asked for it. Half a year into the war, my patriotism faded. In my dreams, I still have hands. When I wake up, I can even feel my fingers and tighten my fist. Although it’s there, it’s not there, it’s as though there’s something invisible covering my hands, and that’s why I can’t see them.” Then we think about the Russians today who are being forced to go fight in Ukraine.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about Tyson. You’re in there before anyone knows who Tyson is, he’s living with Cus D’Amato. I found it interesting, in the introduction you began with your own wayward path towards school [laughs]. I guess that gave you a certain street credibility.
Lori Grinker: Yeah, my editor actually… Well anyway, I don’t want to talk too much about details of it, but I guess that was what it was for, the street credibility. It was also that it was true. I was looking for a way out and I was a messed up kid, and certainly life wasn’t anywhere near as difficult as Tyson’s or some of these kids up there, but seeing them made me appreciate my life and the ease of which I had with a lot of things. It opened me up to this whole other world that wasn’t my world. I started to see how boxing was helping these kids. Billy Ham was interesting to me because he was tiny and he had muscles.
Chris Hedges: He was nine years old.
Lori Grinker: Nine-year-old with muscles. There was a girl named Nadia who was a girl. She was older, actually, older than most of the kids, and she’s still up there. I was focusing on this female and this nine-year-old, and that’s when Cus would say, but you should focus on Mike. He’s going to be the next champion. To me, Mike was this big kid who looked like a boxer, and it seemed obvious. I wanted the anomalies. But of course, Mike was part of the group, so I would be photographing him because he was there training with them, and they were a little gang of kids and they would laugh together and do their chores in the house.
Chris Hedges: They were living at Cus D’Amato’s house.
Lori Grinker: There was a group that would live there all the time, a small group. Mike was one of them. Then Billy Ham would come on weekends. His parents lived in a trailer and his father kept the greens of a golf course. He mowed the greens or something like that. On weekends, he would be up there to learn boxing, and he loved it. There were probably a few other kids that came on weekends, and there were a couple of others that were living there at the time.
Chris Hedges: Having observed the culture – Before we get into Tyson – And it is its own culture, what are your takeaways from it? How would you define it?
Lori Grinker: Well, I was a student when I first went up there, and I was a staunch feminist from my teen years, and I found it a bit anti-female or sexist in some of the conversations. I would try to correct them. I would try to teach them. Then I realized, if I’m going to be doing this, I’m not there to change who they are. I’m there to document their lives. That taught me that there’s certain boundaries you don’t pass when you’re being a journalist. I was an art student, but this was a journalism class, and it was my first and only journalism class. I didn’t never study journalism, but I learned that lesson there. I was more the observer.
What drew me to it was the camaraderie between them all, the support between them all, this crazy household of Cus and Camille and these kids. It’s this older couple taking care of this mix of kids, and all connected to boxing. Jim Jacobs was my entree into the world, and he was the co-manager. He was also a handball champion and a comic book collector. I had photographed him for a seminar that was being taught at The New School on Muhammad Ali, and he was one of the guests. He started talking about Cus and the kids upstate. I said, oh, I have to do a photo project. Can I come upstate? He talked to Cus and they let me come up.
Visually, it was very interesting. You had all these different ages of kids, you had this older couple, you had the gym, which was a fantastic atmosphere, and you had the training. The training was intense and almost like choreography at times, the stretching and the movements and the concentration. What was really interesting about Mike was how studious he was. He was so determined. Every word Cus said, he hung onto. He would read books and he would watch fight films up in the attic.
Chris Hedges: [inaudible] a picture of that. Looking at Super 8 movies or something [crosstalk] automatic.
Lori Grinker: Because Jim owned the big fights with Bill Cayton and they were the co-managers, so they had a fight film archive. He had access to everything. I remember taking those pictures. I had no idea how to do that. It was so dark, and obviously it was all film, and I was just learning how to take pictures. They laughed a lot. Camille kept a really tight ship, and they all did their chores and they cleaned up after dinner.
Chris Hedges: We have a couple foldout pages. My favorite is the foldout into three pictures of Cus D’Amato, who’s in a bathrobe, he’s probably in his 70s – Who knows how old he is at the time.
Lori Grinker: Yeah, I mean –
Chris Hedges: Showing the Peekaboo Punch.
Lori Grinker: Right.
Chris Hedges: That’s what it’s called, right?
Lori Grinker: Peekaboo style. That was one of the weekends I stayed up there. And we were in the living room, and it was after dinner and Cus was in his bathrobe, and he just starts – It’s boxing all the time. The guys were sitting around and he just started doing his thing. I love that series, because it’s actually five pictures, I think. It opens up with three, and then you fold it the other way and there are two.
Chris Hedges: That’s right.
Lori Grinker: Yeah, it’s really fun. I think it’s fun to see this old guy in his bathrobe doing that.
Chris Hedges: I think a lot of people who don’t follow boxing don’t understand how complicated it is. You have a quote from Tyson in there, which I think is true, about how the best boxer is not the brute, or something, but the one who can think, who’s smart. I think that’s also true, and I thought that you captured that complexity in the book.
Lori Grinker: Thank you. I think that Tyson was saying that it’s a thinking man’s sport, and I didn’t know that, and I agree that a lot of people don’t know that. That’s certainly what Cus brought to it. I think until you’re studying it, maybe nobody knows that. Maybe you just think it’s about being as strong as you can and punching, but there is strategy and even photographing it. And most sports – And I’m not a sports photographer by any means, except for doing some boxing a long time ago – But you have to anticipate what’s going to happen next. If you don’t know all the moves and don’t know how this other fighter thinks, it’s almost like chess; you have to be looking at everything and know what’s coming next, and know what can happen if you move one way. That’s what interested me in it. I don’t like boxing, but once I could see the intelligence of it, it was interesting to watch.
Chris Hedges: So you meet Tyson, he’s a kid, you follow him. There’s a picture. He goes back to Brownsville in his white Rolls Royce. There’s pictures in the hotel suite of him and Robin Gibbon. But it is this meteoric rise – I think he becomes world champion when he is 20. But he changes, and not in good ways. That’s also part of what you’re documenting.
Lori Grinker: Yeah. Well, what happened was actually the white Rolls Royce is Catskill and the blue Rolls Royce’s Brownsville.
Chris Hedges: All right.
Lori Grinker: He went through, well, at least two Rolls Royces during my time. I think he had or has a good soul and a generous heart, and I think he let everybody in. And not everybody was interested in Mike. They were interested in themselves and what they could get from it. I think Robin and her mother were like that, but they really did seem like they were in love in the beginning. They did fight a lot, but it was hard not to believe that they weren’t in love. Then you would see her mother on the phone all the time, and suddenly things were happening. You could see all these plots and you could see all these people arrive suddenly that were now a part of the entourage. Then Don King is there. From the inside you could see these changes happening and you could see Mike changing. Of course, he had all this money, which he never had before. Just before that, he lost Cus.
I think if Cus hadn’t died, things would’ve been very different. Then of course Jim Jacobs died, and Mike didn’t want to stay with Bill Cayton and Don King was already working on him. Even though Mike had once said he’d never go with Don King, he ended up with Don King. I think he became less and less reliable for me and other photographers who had appointments set up, assignments set up with magazines, and he just wouldn’t show. Mine were usually a little easier than some of these who came with a big production team and lighting and cost a lot of money, and he didn’t show for them either.
For me, I had started working on Afterwar and I wanted to do other things, and I never intended to make my career about Mike Tyson, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was really dumb luck. Well, not so dumb – I picked a good story, but I never was going to stay there forever, and I certainly wasn’t a celebrity photographer.
But I think when I put all the pictures together, that’s when I started to see the breadth of what I had. It was a lot of trips up and back and up and back, and I went with a lot of different writers and I’d be on assignments on different weekends, and I worked for the big fights doing some of the fights for them, but then all the behind the scenes stuff was mine. I just did that on my own. There were a lot of things Mike wouldn’t let me go to. He never let me go to the big parties. I’m sure he didn’t want me to see what was going on there, or he didn’t want it documented.
Chris Hedges: Well, you have in the book, I think mothers are slipping him phone numbers of their daughters or something.
Lori Grinker: We were driving and we were in traffic in New York City on the BQE or somewhere going over to Brooklyn, and she literally handed him a piece of paper with her daughter’s number. People were feeding him and pushing his buttons and enabling him. He, I think, went back to the troubled places that Cus really helped him focus on getting out of.
Chris Hedges: Well, he becomes surrounded by predators, really. You intimate that that includes Robin and her mother.
Lori Grinker: It looked like that to me. We came back from Japan together, Robin and I, and her mother came to pick her up from the airport and said, oh, we’ll give you a ride back, but first come to New Jersey. You’re flying all night and you get there in the morning. Of course I say yes, and we go, and I’m taking pictures of Robin in these rooms of this mansion in Bernardsville, New Jersey. Then that night Mike calls me and he is like, so what’d you think of the house? Then they bought it. It seemed very well… Choreographed, I guess.
Chris Hedges: When you watched him as a professional – As you know, I boxed part of the YMCA team in Boston, and I remember my coach telling me that I would never make a good boxer because I didn’t have enough hate in my heart. He had an extremely troubled childhood. There was obviously a lot of anger there. What about that phenomenon of hate in terms of Tyson, or maybe even in terms of the other boxers?
Lori Grinker: Well, I don’t know about the other boxers because that was such a short part of my time there. A couple of other boxers that I photographed were Roberto Duran and Alfredo Benitez. I don’t know about anger… Well they weren’t sophisticated in ways that Mike was. Maybe they weren’t as intelligent. Certainly Muhammad Ali was, and I got to photograph him, and I don’t think he had hate.
For Mike, yeah, I mean, all the troubles of his youth apparently fueled his abilities to punch like that. He was an extraordinary physique. He was so developed at age 14 that they used to say that they had to show his birth certificate to get him matches in the fights for these boxing clubs because nobody believed he was really 14 and these clubs lied all the time. Mike didn’t have to lie, he was that age and that well developed.
I think through the book, you see the humanity in him and you see his humor, and I think some of the love of the people around him as well.
Chris Hedges: Well, they’re not mutually exclusive. The guys that I boxed with came from very rough backgrounds, and there was a lot of anger at the circumstances, and yet I think that camaraderie was perhaps the most attractive thing about it. Certainly for me, and amongst ourselves, there was a great deal of kindness and sensitivity. But it doesn’t preclude, I think, that it becomes an outlet for anger, even rage. I think you’re probably right about Muhammad Ali. But there are other fighters, Foreman would be an example, that I think would admit to bringing that kind of anger into the ring.
Lori Grinker: Then they are brothers after.
Chris Hedges: Sometimes [laughs].
Lori Grinker: Well, I mean right after in the ring, they seem to be respectful of each other. I don’t know. It’s a world I haven’t been a part of in such a long time. Bruce Silverglade, who owns Gleason’s Gym, wrote a piece for the book, and he’s such a wonderful man, and he’s certainly seen everything boxing has. We did a book signing there, and a couple of years ago I brought my students to the gym and some of them started photographing boxers. It’s interesting that there are champions who have money now, but there’s not been anyone like Tyson and Ali, and I don’t know if there ever will be. There’s also so many people now doing stories and studies on the damaging effects of boxing, of course, brain damage and all that. There are kids there who are from Brownsville or East New York or these neighborhoods that are still really rough, and they’re so dedicated, and they’re from a single mom home or something. But they don’t seem angry, they just seem to want a way out.
Chris Hedges: Well, the saddest part was watching, and they recognize it is perhaps the only way out, and then they have a fight where they just got clobbered and they realize they aren’t going to be a pro. Then you would just watch them deflate. They realized they would spend the rest of their life where they were as a pot washer or construction worker. That was even harder to watch than whatever physical beating they took.
Lori Grinker: Yeah.
Chris Hedges: We’re going to stop there. That was Lori Grinker on her books Afterwar and Tyson. I want to thank the Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.