Jennifer Charlton: “I absolutely loved it from the first second.”
By Chris Akers
Listening to her as she talks to me on the phone from her home in Duns in Scotland, it is immediately clear how much enthusiasm Jennifer Charlton has for photography.
This is mixed in with a sense of surrealness. As though she cannot believe she’s in the position to photograph fights and fighters, even though her talent and hard work merits it. How she is grateful for the opportunity to be doing something that she loves. While she discovered boxing later on in life, she has had a love of photography from a young age.
“I was interested in photography when I was 16 and doing art and it never went any further. It’s a really weird story. I was having a really bad time and I was going to the gym every day and one day my doctor said to me ‘Why don’t you just go out and not go to the gym today, just take the dog for a walk and have a day off.’
“So I went out with the dog and I had a little compact camera with me. Nothing fancy and I took a couple of photos of some trees. People saw them and said to me that they were amazing and that I should get a camera and do this properly, as they felt I have a really good eye. I’m a very practical person. I would never say I was an artistic person. But I remember coming home and not even remembering where the four hours had gone and don’t even really remember taking photos. It was like I was in another world, a bit like meditating. And I was like ‘God, this is absolutely amazing.”
From there she saved up to buy a camera for her birthday, going out and taking photos, teaching herself how to use it. While out with her dog one day, she heard noises. Choosing to explore what was going on changed her life.
“There’s a motocross track near where I live at Duns. I just happened to go out with the dog one day and I heard all these bikes and went over to see where the noise was coming from. It was a massive event. I’d never even seen the track before and there were all these bikes flying through the air, doing all these amazing whips and everything. I was like ‘Oh my god, that is absolutely amazing. I’m going to have to learn how to take photos of that and how to get access.’ So basically I contacted the track and ask what I needed to do and they said that I needed to get insurance and all this kind of stuff.”
Anytime the track was open, which was about three times a week, Jen would be there. Always practicing how to take the photos of bike events that she had seen. Then one day that track was shut, though she heard about motorbike racing taking place at a track at East Fortune.
“So I turned up just to check it out as I was really missing my fix of doing photography with the other types of bikes. Once I went to that meeting and met those people, the racers were so friendly and I stuck it out and manage to get trackside and learn how to do it safely, which was the biggest issue. The marshals looked after me and I stood with them and I learned so much about it.”
During this time, she saw boxing photos that looked amazing. She had a desire to take photos like that but didn’t know where to start. Yet life has a way of handing people the opportunities to achieve their goals. It was through talking with the bikers that one such opportunity arose.
“You’re going to laugh, but I heard though the bike racing that quite a few of the riders knew this guy called Josh Taylor who was a boxer and I’d never heard of him.”
THAT Josh Taylor. The unified world super lightweight champion. One of the UK’s best pound for pound fighters. Though Jen, not initially knowing much about boxing, didn’t know who he was.
“I didn’t know anything about boxing either. Never even watched a fight. A few people said that he’s really friendly and that he wouldn’t mind if you asked him and stuff. So I messaged him and said ‘Next time you’re ever doing a fight could I maybe come along and watch, cos I’d really like to try photography?’ He was like ‘Yeah that’s fine.’ “
Soon afterwards, Taylor was in preparations for his fight against Miguel Vasquez, which included an open workout at a shopping centre in Edinburgh. Opportunity once again knocked for Jen.
“I didn’t want to bother him as it was his fight week. But a few of the biker guys who knew him said that he wouldn’t mind if I messaged him and turn up. So I messaged him and he said that I could go with my camera. I managed to blag myself past the security tape by speaking to his PR lady. I turned up with my three kids, as I’m a single mom so my kids go everywhere with me and we just got on really well. They invited me to the weigh in on the Friday. I couldn’t quite believe that I was doing the weigh in. That was my first experience of been hustled and jostled against other photographers. My kids were there with me for that as well.”
As Jen was leaving the weigh in, somebody said to her ‘You coming to do the fight?’
“I said ‘There’s no way I’ll get into the fight. I’d never done a fight before and I won’t get a press pass.’ I’d already done the Arena Cross, some of their events and I knew how hard it was to get trackside. But they said just to leave it with them and they would try and sort it out for me if I managed to get up.”
Hardly sleeping all day, Jen drove to Edinburgh the next day, wondering how on Earth she would manage to get a press pass for a fight that was broadcast live on Channel 5.
“But they said they would try and get me in. I turned up and I was sat with the rest of the journalists. I wasn’t allowed ringside as there wasn’t any spare passes for me. But some of the photographers only turn up for the main fight, so they was quite a lot of free spaces. So Josh’s PR lady worked for Cyclone. She gave me a temporary ringside pass. She said I could go in and as soon as the main photographers turn up, you have to move back, go back and sit down and give them their space. I’d ever never done a fight before. Never done any boxing on any kind of level.”
Initially feeling trepidation, once she began taking photos, Jen was in her element.
“As soon as I started doing it and shooting from the ropes, I just grasped it straight away, as it was really similar to the motorbike racing. It was all about intuition and feeling when that moment was going to come before it came and knowing to pre-empty it and press the button. It was obviously high speed. You had to be really accurate and working under a lot of pressure and I was used to doing all of that anyway. I absolutely loved it from the first second.”
No sooner had she started and loved what she was doing, suddenly she had to stop.
“Then unfortunately the other photographers turned up, so I had to go back and take my seat and I was absolutely gutted. I remember being devastated as I felt I was starting to get the hang of it. I was so upset. I remember seeing these two guys sat behind me. They were journalists. I didn’t know who they were and they could see how upset I was. I said to them that I felt like I’d been given a winning lottery ticket and I’d had it taken away from me. I was really upset.”
One of the journalists was Andrew McCart who works for iFL TV.
“Both of them were so lovely to me and supportive. That’s how my friendship started to now, as Andrew McCart was the same as me. He was working full time. He was juggling that with trying to get a foot in the door. He has kids and was doing stupid hours like I’m doing, not really getting paid much. What’s being lovely is that he was so nice to me that first day I was there. I’ve watched him now and he’s basically travelling all over the world and he’s doing it full time. He’s been able to give up his other job. He’s just like living the dream.
“What’s been amazing for me is watching these people starting off, doing it part time and rushing from his main job to press conferences and trying to juggle it all. He kept saying to me ‘keep going, keep going. Don’t give up, you’ll get there’ and he was so supportive. I’m watching people like that now living their dream. I’m still not yet. I’m still working.
“They’re just such an amazing group of people that you come across in the industry. Everyone from the trainers to the boxers, they’re like the bike racers. It’s a real special environment that I never thought I would find again apart from the bike racing. I thought the bike racers really were unique, but I’ve found the boxers really similar in that sense. I just love being around them. Any opportunity, I just what to be there doing it all the time. If I’m not there, I’m thinking about it, dreaming about it.”
I say to Jen how much I can relate with how friendly the boxing community is and how much people are willing to help you if possible.
“Other areas I’ve worked in, people can be ruthless. But the boxing community is just not like that at all. They’re just amazing. They really are. It’s lovely. It’s such a small world. I’ve not been doing it long. I’ve only being doing the boxing probably less than two years. But I know so many people now and people know who I am. I suppose as I’m female I may stand out a bit more than maybe other photographers, I don’t know. I can even go down to London and I’ll be backstage at the Copper Box and one of the referees was walking down the corridor and he was like ‘Oh my God Jen, what are you doing here?!’ You just think nobody knows who you are. But I suppose they do cos they’re still busy doing their own jobs. At the time you just think you’re invisible, but you’re obviously not. Everybody’s just lovely. I feel like I’m a female in a male environment, but I feel like they all really look after me as well.
“It’s been quite hard to crack that, especially going into the changing rooms and doing all the backstage stuff and everything like that. I used to be a massage therapist, so it didn’t faze me at all walking into the changing rooms. The only concern I had is that they would feel uncomfortable cos I am female and they weren’t used to that. But they’ve got to know me all really well now and it just doesn’t make any difference. We have a really good laugh and there’s a lot of banter. It’s amazing how they’ve taken to me and how they’ve let me into their world. That’s what I feel really privileged about more than anything. Every time I go down to one of these fights, I feel so honoured that I’m there. I’ve worked extremely hard for it. I’ve got some amazing stories that show how much I’ve overcome!”
She then tells me one such story that demonstrates how determined and passionate she is to be ringside, doing the job she loves.
“Do you remember when we had the massive snowstorm and we all got snowed in? That was my big break. I was meant to be going to Glasgow. I’d been allowed to turn up and cover a few fights. But Cyclone had said to me that I would definitely be ringside and that I was working for them. So this was my first official job in Glasgow. So I heard that this big snowstorm was coming that we’d all been warned about. So I checked and was told that I’ll be ok if I’d left five o’clock in the morning. I would get away before the snowstorm hit cos it’s a two and a half hours drive to Glasgow.
“Anyway I woke up and it was an absolute whiteout. I had a babysitter booked for that night. So I woke up and I looked out and I thought ‘Oh my God! I’ve got to get there.’ So I got in the car and thought I better go now as it’s only going to get worse. I set off and I only got two miles down the road and I got stuck. I tried to carry on but I got stuck again. A snow plough came. It was a total blizzard and I couldn’t even reverse back cos I was in the country and couldn’t see where the road was. So this snow plough came along and the driver stopped and offered to help reverse back the road for me.
“He said ‘If you wait there I’m going to be back in 20 minutes. I’ll come back to get you and I’ll see you back to Duns. Just wait there and don’t move.’ So he put down his window and said ‘Hang on I recognise you.’ I said ‘Do you?’ and he said ‘Oh you’re that lass. You took a photo for me once when we were out in the middle of nowhere walking with my dog cos my daughter was missing the dog and you kindly took a photo for me.’ That was karma, that I’d done someone a favour once and it’s come back on me. So I got back to Duns, had a cup of tea and my babysitter was saying that there was no way that I could go back out there, that I was never going to get there.
“I said to her that I’ve got to go and that I’d promise the McGuigans that I’d be there and that I couldn’t let them down. I’d worked too hard to get here and I had to work out how to get there. So I got my neighbours to push my car out to the main road and I drove to Berwick train station and the trains had been stopped at Newcastle. I had to sit and wait ages for a train. Eventually I got a train to Glasgow. But then they were shutting down the city, all the shops were closing. I ended getting stuck in Glasgow for four days. I couldn’t get home to my kids. Everybody in Duns was snowed in and snow out and they couldn’t even get emergency vehicles in and out. And I ended up having to stay away from my kids for four days which I’ve never done before. I’d only ever been away from them one night before. It was absolutely horrendous.
But the good part of it was that that the McGuigans knew what I’d gone through to get there. They couldn’t believe I’d managed it as they knew I had my kids and everything. They actually got me in the office and Sandra, Barry’s wife, sat me down and she just said, ‘We just think you’re absolutely amazing. You said you would do something and you got here and a lot of the local journalists haven’t even turned up. We just think it’s amazing the way you work.’
“I said that I really wanted to do this and that if I made someone a promise I’m not going to let them down. I think really that’s what helped me. Then I meet the boxing team that we were stuck in with and they’ve become really good friends. They’re from the North East. They even offered me a life back to Duns but I didn’t need it. That shows how lovely they all are. They saw how determined I was to overcome things and to try and make it in the world.
“So I think people might look at me and think that I’m only there as I’m female. But people in the industry see how hard and how much I put on the line to get where I am and how determined I am to try and make a go of it. So I know I’ve proven myself. I’ve just really got to have a lucky break now hopefully and something really good is going to happen. I’m at that pinnacle now where I’ve really got to start breaking even, as I’m getting paid for some things but not for other things. But I’m not prepared to not go to things if I’m offered a pass, as I want to be there more than anything else.
“Photographers at ringside have been doing the job and known each other thirty years. There’s obviously only five places ringside. There’s a lot of competition to be ringside. If you try and work for any of the big names they’ve already got people who have been working for them forever. So it’s really hard to break into it. I think I’m doing quite well considering I’ve been trying to do it my own way.”
The determination has paid off, as she covers Newcastle shows for the boxing management company MTK Global. Though the costs from travelling to and from fights, accommodation and upgrading her photography equipment has at times left her out of pocket, she has no regrets about the photography and is passionate about it.
“The photography side is so expensive, it limits you to what you can spend on travel and hotels and things like that. I wouldn’t have dared got into it at all if anyone had told me how far down the road I would end up with this. But I’m glad no one did tell me to be honest as I live for it. I literally think and breathe it, boxing and motorbikes photography.”
Jen furthered this commitment by enrolling on a college course to develop her photography. Waking up at five o’clock in the morning three days a week, commuting for four hours a day to attend classes for the course. Some weeks on top of this, she attends boxing shows at the weekend, then editing 6,000 photos from fight night.
“I’ve learned so much just in a few months. It gives me confidence. I always used to think that I was just winging it when I was ringside, as anything I’d ever done job wise I’d qualified really highly to make sure I really knew what I was doing. I was getting nervous and when you get nervous you can’t think creatively. You jam up. I felt if I went to college and I had more confidence in knowing what I was doing, my creatively would flow better.
“So I’ve definitely found now that I’m much more confident and that my editing is better. I’m looking at my photos now and I know they could just be as good as anyone else’s in magazines and publications and book covers. I don’t say that lightly as I’m not a very confident person. I’m not arrogant at all. But I can see my photos are getting there now.”
The photography skills were put to good use on a project which she feels very passionate about.
“I’ve got three kids and I’m really horrified in hearing what happening with all of the stabbings. There even reports of knives in our local school and we’re just really rural. So I wanted to do something. I heard of a gym in Newcastle who had done a really good event in Newcastle city centre with Knives Down, Gloves Up. They do a lot of work and they had a boxing ring in Newcastle City Centre on a busy Saturday with some boxers there and the local police chief came.
“They were just picking kids off the streets and encouraging them to have a go. They were proactive in trying to promote it. So I spoke to this guy from Knives Down, Gloves Up and asked him what he does. Any money he raises, he puts it into travelling round the country and going into schools and educating kids about knife crime. They also get dedicated gyms to offer free sessions to children. So I thought it sounded really good.”
From this, Jen had the idea of putting together a calendar as a way of raising money for Knives Down, Gloves Down.
“The first calendar I did I really rushed it out. It was a practice to learn about how to put a calendar together. I only took about two weeks putting it together. It was just meant to be a prototype and I wasn’t actually planning on selling any. But I manage to sell quite a lot. I had some really good photos of the guys backstage and I thought that I had to do something really good with these, as there was no point them just sitting on my computer. I really wanted to use them to raise some money.
“Also, because of the college course I have access to a studio. So some of the boxing guys are more than happy to come into the studio and let me take some studio photos of them. I didn’t raise a huge amount of money, as it was all last minute and I was disappointed I didn’t sell as much as I’d hope to when I’m doing it properly. But we manage to get it off the ground and get some awareness. I got loads of press coverage for him, even though I didn’t raise as much money as I’d have liked to. Then my plan this year before the current situation happened, was hoping to build on it and get some really big names and made a really amazing calendar.
“My dream would be to have people like Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua. I’d even love to get Eddie Hearn on it! The plan was to bring it out in the autumn and raise even more money. But unfortunately, at the minute, with not knowing when things are starting, I think it will be really difficult.”
Returning to the fights she has been at, from taking photos at Josh Taylor fights on Channel 5, to been invited to the press conference for his fight against Ryan Martin, it was at said conference that an offer came that she couldn’t quite believe at first.
“I’d already done all this stuff with Josh for Cyclone and then I got invited to the press conference and I couldn’t believe it when the Sauerlands turned round and said that they wanted me to be their main photographer. I was like, ‘What?!’ I said, ‘Have you seen my work?’, thinking I wasn’t good enough and they went ‘Yeah yeah yeah.’ I said ’You actually want me to be your photographer for the actual fight night?’ and they said ‘Yeah, yeah.’
“I actually sat on it for a week. I didn’t tell anybody cos I still couldn’t believe it. I messaged Josh a few days after the press conference on the Saturday morning and said ‘You’re going to think I’m really crazy. Did they actually say I’m going to be their photographer?’ and he just laughed and said ‘Yes Jen. They did!”
So overwhelmed was she by this offer by the Sauerlands, that when she got in the car to leave the conference that day, she cried tears of joy and disbelief on the way home. The tears were not just because of the offer she received, but because of what she had to overcome to get this far, as photography had changed her life in more ways than one.
“Basically I was married to a coercive, controlling, horrible man who’s a narcissist. Women’s Aid were involved in the end and fortunately I’m divorced from him now. When I first met him I was a really confident career woman. I was a restaurant manager and worked my way through university supporting myself.
“Then I met him and it all started to go wrong. From coming out of that marriage, I was left so shattered and scared and he pulled all sorts of stints on me. If somebody knocked on my door, I was absolutely terrified to open the door. I wouldn’t speak to people.
“All my self-confidence had gone. I was constantly scared for my kid’s safety. I was a nervous wreck basically. I was going to the gym a lot and that’s how I dealt with it. Kept myself strong mentally and things like that. But I was exhausted a lot as well and my doctor said, ‘Why don’t you just go for a walk instead of pushing yourself so hard all the time?’ So that’s when I went out with the camera and started taking photos. I didn’t even remember taking them. I was lost in time for four hours. It was amazing.
Photography has changed my whole life. When I got this camera in my hand, I’d lose all my worries for a few hours as it completely took my mind off things. People started to be really supportive and encouraging. For some reason when I pick up the camera, I’m like a different person.”
Having a camera in her hand has given her so much of the confidence that she had lost.
“I think the reason why I couldn’t believe the Sauerlands had offered me that, is because I’d come from that person that I still remember, being absolutely terrified of even answering the door, to the fact that these people believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself.
It’s taken a few years but I am getting to the point that I believe in myself and feel that I have just as much right to be there then everybody else.”
This belief Jen has in herself was on display during the Josh Taylor-Ryan Martin fight. As she took her place near the ring apron, with all the other photographers, there was a recognition that with all the hard work she had put into doing what she loved, that she was there that night on merit.
“I knew that I deserved it. I stood there shoulder to shoulder with all these guys looking at me going ‘where have you come from? We don’t even know how you are’, cos they’ve all known each other for years. But I knew that I’d earned that. I done everything I could have possibly done. I’d overcome so many barriers to have got there and I’ve never given up.”
Photography has empowered Jen to move forward in her life with a purpose and a passion and not let the insidiousness of one person’s actions towards her determine her fate. Perhaps because of what she has been through herself, Jen can relate to the boxers in many ways.
“The photography is really different to the boxing, but there’s a massive understanding there. I can see the way they fight for things. I see how things go wrong for them in an instant. I can see how hard they work for something and it can get taken away. How heart-breaking it is. There’s quite a lot of similarities between them and the other people working in the boxing industry. We’re all there. We’re all broke. We’re all doing it for the love of it. Most of us are waiting for that lucky break, to be able to live the dream to do it all the time.
“That’s why I love the boxers. A lot of them come from difficult backgrounds and they never give up. They just keep going and keep going. They have this amazing belief in themselves. It’s really inspiring. You see that in Josh. He knew he was going to be world champion. He always knew. It really was never an option for him not to be world champion. I’m a bit like that with my photography. Whatever blockages get put in my way, I have this belief that this is honestly what I am meant to be doing and I just have to keep going at it and just trying to overcome the problems and never giving up on it.”
Talking to her after the interview, her enthusiasm for photography shines through, as well as her determination to succeed no matter the odds. Her talent shines through in the photographs she takes. With the drive that she has shown to get this far, it surely will not be long before more people within both boxing and sporting circles will hear of her name and the quality of work associated with it.