Read Time 7 minutes

Freedom & The Bars, with Spencer Murphy

Meet the photographer documenting the new calisthenics communities in London, with equipment coming from an unusual source.

It’s a familiar sight in London parks: huddles of young people with chiselled torsos and bulging arms hoisting themselves up on bars, veins popping, sweat glistening. The calisthenic apparatus is free to access, open to anyone, conveniently situated in the plentiful green spaces.

Some of these al fresco gyms––four across the capital including one in Brixton prison––have been constructed using the materials from melted down knives, taken off the street and repurposed to create something optimistic: new communities, new purpose, new hope for young people. This is the initiative of charitable organisation Steel Warriors, who have chosen gang neutral zones within areas profoundly affected by violent crimes.

Photographer Spencer Murphy, Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize winner and contributor to such titles as Vogue Italia, Wallpaper* and Time, discovered Steel Warriors on social media, and spent his summer of 2023 producing The Bars, a documentary project [featuring photography, short film and printed zine] which shows the successes of the initiative, and meets some of the people who have been positively affected by the new equipment.

You like to examine the notion of being outside of a community in your work, could you tell us a little about that in relation to this project? Yourself as outsider, documenting this community, but also how this community sits outside of something else? 

It’s actually one of the few times when I felt I could have dropped the camera and been a part of the community. Myself and the DOP [Ed Andrews] are both quite into our fitness and I’ve been into climbing and body weight exercises on-and-off for most my life. So for once I didn’t feel like an outsider. The community are so friendly and welcoming that it only took a couple of visits before I became fairly invisible.

I think the community perhaps sits outside of something else because it bucks a trend. What they do takes them away from the peer pressure of having to be involved in anything negative. It only requires their bodies and for them to show up and there is a wealth of positivity when they do.

Darklight Digital - Freedom & The Bars, with Spencer Murphy Page Image

Could you tell us a bit about the aesthetic choices you made when producing this project? 

I wanted the images and the film to really sit together and I wanted to bring my style to the film. But most of all I wanted it to feel real and to bring the viewer into that community and their energy. Some of that came later in the edits and the grade but a lot of it was just about being there and seeing what worked, what didn’t, and filling in the gaps.


There are obviously women included in the project, who seem absolutely incredible, but the thing I thought a lot about when I was watching the film was masculinity; I was reminded of Ancient Greece, or those old fashioned gymnasiums with moustachioed men in tiny vests jumping over pommel horses and lifting enormous dumb bells. Plus, in the context of this as a knife crime initiative, men are statistically more likely to be perpetrators of violent crime than women … I wondered if you’d thought much about masculinity while you were making this work, and if you came away with any new thoughts on the subject?

I’m really interested in modern masculinity and our preconceptions of what that means. What are the outlets for young men, especially in a place like London?

I think that does play into the project. We of course wanted to show how inclusive the environment is, and what you don’t see in the doc is the classes and the large percentage of women that show up to those.

On the subject of masculinity though, I think it’s evident and it again comes back to the simplicity of turning something so negative into something so positive. Using all that testosterone and channelling it into something positive, rather than being out on the streets and seeing that as a proving ground. I grew up skateboarding in my teens and I see a lot of parallels in the way such varied individuals find their place and lift each other up. We were all misfits who found creativity of expression through something so simple yet so difficult to master, something that kept us outside … I see that reflected. It definitely feels like a chapter in something that started with my Urban Dirt Bikers series and I’m looking at where that might lead me next.

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Last night I went to see a ballet, and seeing all these extraordinary jumping muscles and flinging limbs on stage got me thinking about your project, and I wanted to ask you: when does sport become art? 

I think all sport is quite a pure form of creative expression. Some clearer to see than others, such as dance or surfing but that meditative state you find yourself in when nothing else past or future enters your mind and the only thing that matters is what you are doing in that moment, I think that’s a state we all strive to be in. One that I find is not unique to any sport but rather a symptom of all sports and why it can become so addictive. I think with the calisthenics, it’s as clear to see as it can be, especially the freestyle routines. There really are these ephemeral moments of expression and a striving for originality that are on display.

Darklight Digital - Freedom & The Bars, with Spencer Murphy Page Image
Darklight Digital - Freedom & The Bars, with Spencer Murphy Page Image


All photography courtesy of Spencer Murphy. The Bars zine is available to purchase here.

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