While studying art in college I found the sport of Muaythai, the National Sport of Thailand. I started practicing to get my self in shape and being a college kid eating terrible, as well as destroying my body with cigarettes and alcohol, I knew it was a change I needed. If my time was not spent in the darkroom, you would find me at my gym practicing techniques over and over. I enjoy the technical aspect of the sport in the same way I enjoy the technical aspect of photography.
As I went to grad school, I made photography my priority and practicing MuayThai secondary. As soon as I found my footing in grad school, I joined one of the most famous gyms in San Francisco. This gym was run by a few legends of Muaythai. Ex-Stadium Champions in the early 1990s which is known as the “Golden Era,” of the sport. Even though I was learning photography and practicing Muaythai, it never occurred to me to intertwine both of my passions.
In 2009 I wanted to do something special for my birthday. I went to Thailand by myself and stayed at a Muaythai camp for about 3 weeks. I immersed my self in the culture and sport. Armed with a bag full of film, a Hasselblad 500C, and a digital camera, I photographed what was around me.
Social media wasn’t big back then but correspondence through email was. I happened to reach out to a famous boxing promoter out in Thailand and he invited me to come photograph one of his events. This event was at Rajadamnern Stadium, one of the oldest stadiums in Bangkok.
This experience was unforgettable. It was like a football fan watching his favorite team play in its home stadium. It was overwhelming, the sounds, the people, the fighters and the vibe was a lot to take in as a westerner experiencing REAL Muaythai for the first time. After my trip, I knew that I wanted to come back one day and photograph the stadium again. I wanted to come back better prepared.
In 2019, I returned to Thailand while creating a documentary about the IFMA (International Federation of Muaythai Amateurs) World Championships. During my trip, I decided to photograph Rajadamnren Stadium once again this time armed with a Pentax 6×7 and Fujifilm Pro 400H.
6×7 was the largest format I felt comfortable handholding and the SMC-PENTAX 105mm f/2.4 lens renders photos beautifully. I remembered how dark the stadium was during my first visit and I knew I had to push my film for extra speed, so EI 3200 is was to be. Incidentally, the two frames below were taken from a very pocketable Olympus XA.
I did not want to introduce flash to this body of work because I wanted to show the world what the stadium was like. I wanted to show the people who cannot travel to Thailand what the stadium was like through my lens. I also wanted to show how different competitive fighting is in Thailand compared to the west.
I knew I wanted to focus on a few things to achieve those goals: I wanted to show the locker room and how all the fighters have one place to warm up and prepare for fights. In the west, you are separated by either a red or blue corner. A fighter doesn’t see their opponent until they step in the ring. Muaythai is different; I wanted to show how close fighters are to their opponent the entire time.
A friend of my mine told me that one of my favorite fighters, Panpayak Jitmuanong was the main event at the event that night. Panpayak has won fighter of the year in Thailand three times in a row, which is very special. Photographing him at the stadium would serve a dual purpose: I would be able to photograph both him and the stadium at the same time.
Once inside the stadium, I went directly to the locker room. A lot of the feelings from my first visit quickly hit me once again. Being a foreigner, not being able to speak the language and with a huge camera trying to stay incognito while taking photos. Let’s just say there was sort of an adrenaline rush.
I found a light source in the hallway of the locker room and I photographed fighters before they stepped out.
While taking portraits of the fighters, I could hear the roar of the crowd. The main event stepped out and I went other rafters and photographed the stadium from that vantage point.
The locker room was packed with fighters, family, support teams and the scent of menthol from the Thai boxing liniment filled the air. Still, I felt a sense of calmness. Fighters were getting massaged to warm up their muscles, and gloves were getting laced.
The portrait above is of 48kg Japanese Champion, Nakada EiwaSportGym having Vaseline rubbed onto his face pre-fight. This is done to all the boxers before the fight to reduce cuts. They also massage the face to help relax the face muscles. The surname “EiwaSportGym” may sound strange to readers not familiar with the sport: fighters in Thailand normally take the gym they represent as their last names.
Nakada after his fight. As I mentioned above, I did not want to introduce flash in my work because I felt it would take away from the natural grittiness of the stadium. I wanted to have an authentic look to my shots that was specific to the space.
Shooting with my Pentax 6×7 and 105mm f/2.4 lens, I was wide open the majority of the time and I knew that the mirror slap would hurt my work.
Top: Petchdamn Petchyindee, a famous fighter that competes internationally. He competes for ONE Championship. They gross over a billion dollars in revenue.
Bottom: Ryuya Eiwa after winning the IBF Mini-Flyweight title. When I took this photo, I didn’t realize there was more than one Japanese fighter there. He spoke little English and I was shocked to learn he was only 18 with a lot of professional fights under his belt.
Continuing below is a photograph of main event fighter, Yamin PK Saenchaimuaythaigym. His team can be seen wrapping an armband around his bicep called a “prajioud”. MuayThai is a very superstitious sport. These armbands usually contain blessed amulets to protect the fighter. These armbands can be made of cloth or hair from a loved one. Most of the time they use fabric from a monk’s garment. These garments have written prayers on them and are blessed.
This following photograph represents how the sport is different than western boxing. The young fighter is sitting in front of his opponent wearing a cape that represents his gym, a fresh jasmine garland, and spiritual headband called a mongkon/mongkol.
In western countries, fighters wear the same things but they are separated before the fight. We would rarely see two fighters in the west sitting so close to each other before the fights.
In Thailand, winning and losing is just that. This is how these kids and families escape poverty. In the west, it’s our choice to fight and for a majority in the east, this is how they earn money for their families.
Panpayak Jitmuanong. This was the person I came to see. Panpayak has won “fighter of the year” three times in a row. He is the first fighter in history to have ever done this. In the gallery above you see Panpayak having his gloves tied by his team. In the distance behind him you can barely make out his opponent’s team doing the same thing.
Below, Panpayak and his mom wait to be called to the ring. Behind him is his opponent Yamin. There isn’t any tension, it’s really calm actually, which is so different from the west. These fighters can fight twice a week giving them so much experience that fighting becomes a job.
Below, Panpayak praying before entering the ring. All boxers pray at the steps before entering the ring. The sport is very superstitious.
After each fight, the winner of the bout walks to a step and repeat banner where Thai Media takes photos and conducts interviews. After each fight, they place jasmine garlands on the fighters.
Looking back at my photographs of Rajadamnern Stadium, I feel a bit of nostalgia. The photos make me want to go back to Thailand and shoot it again, I feel such a rush being around a sport I admire so much. The high caliber athletes, the grittiness of the stadium and being surround by people who love the sport is something indescribable.
Looking back at the photos, I feel a sense of accomplishment. Shooting film on old medium format cameras is a difficult process since there are variables that constantly change. Even though the process is difficult, it is the process that I enjoy so much. Shooting film slowed me down, I concentrated on framing, I waited for the right moment, I studied the light, I triple checked my exposure, and then I clicked the shutter. I was in full control of the image and crafted each frame.
Along with a body of photographic work, I wanted to create a short video to accompany my photos. The video shows the sights and sounds of the beautiful stadium, its athletes and gives first-hand experiences through my lens.
Shooting film is an experience of its own. I encourage everyone to try it on a fully manual camera. Its limitations will make a photographer more creative, resourceful, and accurate. Not every frame will be a money shot and some frames may not produce an image at all but the frames that do produce an image will be incredibly personal; moments in time that were crafted by your own hands. I can wax poetically on why analog photography is a wonderful thing, but you will only understand the beauty of analog photography when you shoot a roll your self.
I would like to personally thank all of the athletes I have photographed over the years and commend their dedication to the sport of MuayThai. I would like to thank EMULSIVE for sharing this story and its dedication to analog photography.
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