My featured image (above) is the kind of photo you can get in Bangkok merely by lingering in the street until late evening, when most people are having dinner. That why I’m going to claim it as a street photo, along with all the others you see here.
In fact, my objective in forgoing dinner was not to watch the Muay Thai (kickboxing) matches themselves, but to get candid shots of the preparations: the boxers, their helpers, and the gathering crowd. But one thing leads to another and I stayed until the end.
Regular Muay Thai events held outside the MBK mall in the centre of Bangkok are popular, not least because they’re free to watch. The boxers get prize money, but many have only just turned professional and for some it’s their first serious fight. As you can imagine, it’s a tense time for all — especially if you have a friend or relative taking part.
I know how they feel. My son is a martial arts enthusiast (karate black belt, Brazilian ju-jitsu, etc.) and did a year’s training in Muay Thai at Master Toddy’s esteemed academy in Bangkok. It’s a tough sport in which there’s said to be an injury every two and a half hours, on average. I’m glad to say my son survived with only minor bruising.
The MBK fights have been on pause recently, the area having been taken over by commerce, but I hope they get reinstored soon. Fortunately, other malls host them, too.
The Photographic Challenge
As you can see from my shot of the worried onlooker, light from the setting sun provides intense illumination, but as the evening progresses the light fades and artificial lights take over. That’s fine with me. I get natural light for the preparations and a well-lit ring for the fighting. I never use flash — and even if I did it’s not a great idea to blind one of the fighters temporarily. It could cost him (or her) the match.
Muay Thai has become popular with women, who are now taking up the sport in increasing numbers. I followed the fortunes of one young lady who was taking part (sorry, I don’t know her name, but I’m happy to add it if anyone can tell me). She seemed very relaxed during the preparations, smiling and chatting while her hands were being wrapped with layers of protective tape. I had a feeling she was going to win.
When it came to be her turn, I’d already seen a few of the earlier matches and I’d discovered how difficult it is to photograph Muay Thai unless you have permission to stand on the canvas. From this privileged position, all is possible because you can raise your camera over the ropes and get a clear shot. However, if you’re standing on the floor looking up, the ropes always get in the way.
To solve the problem I scampered upstairs to the mall’s walkway entrance. From there, looking down on the action, I was able to grab a few acceptable shots using the same 85mm lens I’d attached earlier. Sports photographers never have this trouble! But at least I can claim my shots as street photographs, having taken them from the public street.
The view from high above is unusual and dramatic, but I think my best shots came between rounds, when the fighters were receiving attention from their seconds. I like this shot of the fighter breathing deeply, watched anxiously by the little boy at the front of the crowd. Is that her younger brother? As always with my pictures you’ll have to make up your own story to go with them.
I was right about her fighting spirit. She performed brilliantly throughout the match….
…and was the eventual winner against a tough opponent.
It’s Just One Example
In most major cities you can find theatrical events performed with varying degrees of formality in the street. You probably won’t find Muay Thai street events outside of Thailand, but there are many other opportunities if you look for them.
For example, there’s “Running the Bulls” in the Spanish city of Pamplona (take care!) or in Japan there’s the “matsuri” when celebrants carry a mikoshi (portable shrine) through the crowd. In London we have the Lord Mayor’s Show and royal events like Trooping the Colour.
If you don’t want conventional travel pictures, look for shots in the crowd. From the Muay Thai event my favourite photo is this one I took before the action began (see below). The young fighter looks serious, but he’s getting support from his younger brother who’s holding the Bout Sheet, sipping a milk shake, and looking equally thoughtful.
What’s running through their minds? We’ll never know for sure.