Robin Sinha: Capturing the True Representation of Muay Thai Fighters

Robin Sinha is a freelance photographer based in East London. After completing a photography degree at the London College of Communication, Robin assisted various photographers at home and abroad. While doing so, he also worked as a studio assistant at London’s Big Sky, a premier photographic studio. Apart from his own freelance work, Robin tutors at the Leica Akademie Mayfair, with classes including one focused on street photography.

Robin spoke to us about his Muay Thai fighters series and how the project forced him to think about storytelling.

Q: Can you provide us some background information on your Muay Thai fighters series? Where did the idea come from? How did it get started?

A: My Muay Thai series is something I have wanted to shoot for a long time. As a child I was always fascinated by martial arts, and Bruce Lee was my childhood hero of course! I was absolutely fascinated by his physicality and his mental strength. I realised there was so much more to martial arts than the muscles and flexibility. As soon as I finished my photography degree I knew this would be the theme of a future project. I actually practiced kickboxing for a couple of years so Muay Thai was always on the radar. For those that don’t know (and those interested), kickboxing is a similar martial art although it prohibits the use of elbows and knees.

On booking a holiday to Thailand, I immediately saw this as an opportunity to visit one of Bangkok’s greatest Muay Thai arenas. I started by e-mailing a few photographers that had been able to gain access in the past. They warned me that there was an element of luck involved and it would all depend on the day I visited. I did as much online research as possible but then had the great luck of meeting a Leica customer that lives in Bangkok. On leaving the store one day he told the staff to let him know if they are ever in Bangkok. I don’t think he was expecting me to immediately come forward with my flight itinerary! This meeting was paramount to me gaining the backstage access and it also led to a good friendship.

Q: What camera and equipment did you use to shoot this series?

A: I used the M9 with the 35 mm f/1.4 and the 50 mm f/2. The images were later processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Q: How did this equipment fit your needs for this project?

A: The camera was absolutely ideal and the fast lenses, essential. The discretion of the M9 was key to getting backstage. As the camera has the appearance of vintage film camera, people are unaware that it’s shooting images of a professional quality. It also allowed me to roam around without always drawing attention to myself. It was always a goal to try and capture some of the movement of Muay Thai, so being able to shoot handheld at slow shutter speeds was vital. I occasionally shoot with an SLR, but with the mirror mechanism, I would not have been able to capture handheld images at such slow shutter speeds. I was thankful for having fast lenses, as the light was extremely poor.

Q: Aside from the M9’s small size, traditional, unintimidating look and lack of mirror-induced vibration, what other operational characteristics does it possess that make it particularly effective for your kind of photography? Which of your two M lenses did you favor for this project, the 35 mm Summilux or the 50 mm Summicron? And when did you use the other one?

A: When using any M rangefinder, film or digital, I believe you become more involved in the image making process. The lack of autofocus forces you to remain concentrated right until the last action of pressing the shutter release. Unlike an SLR where you see what the lens sees, a rangefinder allows you see around your frame when using a 35 mm lens or longer. As a result you can anticipate things coming in and out of your frame. For this series of images I found this particularly useful due to the jostling, fast moving environment.

Lens wise, I preferred using the 35 mm. It’s the lens I’m most practiced with and therefore most comfortable. Being in a poorly lit location also made the extra f/stop extremely useful when trying to maintain a manageable shutter speed and usable ISO. I also wanted to capture elements of the fighter’s lair and the 35 mm allowed me to do this. The 50 mm however certainly had its uses. I needed to get some images of the fighters in the ring to complete the story and I was restricted on how close I could get. The 50 mm was just long enough. It also allowed me to capture certain scenes, such as the celebrating spectator or uniformed guards, without drawing attention to myself.

Q: All the images in your Muay Thai Boxing series were output in black-and-white though you shot them with a Leica M9 that captures images in full color. What is there about this traditional medium that you find especially suitable for this particular subject, and what advantages do you think it has for documentary work in general?

A: Although these images were black-and-white conversions from the DNG file, at the time of shooting, I was previewing in black-and-white having set a basic low-res jpeg. This was always going to be black-and-white project. The main purpose of the project was to portray the intensity of the fighters and capture their aura. Colour would be an unwanted distraction from my subject, and in a way would create a barrier that would soften the overall impact. I can draw parallels with the way the fighters must block out all distractions and become 100% focused on the task ahead. I think this is exactly why the medium is so popular for documentary work. It also brings an element of timelessness. Of course we can search for clues in the frame that begin to contextualise, however on a first glance, time is less significant, and the subject matter shines through.

Q: Many of these athletes have expressions that convey a kind of grim determination. They are clearly dedicated to their sport, which is inherently combative in nature, but do you think their stoic, almost defiant attitude also has a cultural or macho aspect?

A: There is certainly a cultural aspect to it. Muay Thai has roots dating back more than 500 years, and it was originally used as a practical fighting system that soldiers would employ to defend their country. The art became synonymous with honour, courage and dedication. Today Muay Thai is still Thailand’s national sport and children begin training from a very early age. It very much becomes a part of life.

The tradition is never forgotten and ancient rituals, passed down from their ancestors, form an integral part of training. From what I witnessed, there is actually no macho aspect at all. The fighters train their bodies for brutal, physical combat, yet they remain humble and respectful of their opponent. Although physically and mentally strong, I believe there is vulnerability about the fighters. They have often been sent by their families, living in poor rural communities, in the hope that they become great fighters and earn good money. For any child, that is a huge responsibility to carry on their shoulders.

Q: These are two compelling portraits in which the boxer is directly facing the camera yet seems to be looking past or through the photographer as though in a meditative state.

A: Exactly that. A meditative state. As I previously mentioned, a fighter must learn to enter his own personal zone and remove all distractions. The mental preparations are often what make all the difference. You can do all the physical training in the world, however if your mind is not focused on the fight, you start with a huge disadvantage. Great boxers have commented that before a fight, they mentally play it out and visualise defeating their opponent. When they enter the ring, in their mind there is only one possible outcome – winning. In the portraits you mention, I agree that fighters are looking straight through me. They are obviously aware of having their photograph taken, yet their focus remains intact.

Q: While many of these images have a brutally matter-of-fact quality there are a couple showing handlers in attendance that almost express a kind of tenderness, notably the one of three men rubbing down a fighter and especially the image of a beefy looking guy holding his hand over a fighter’s head. What are your feelings about these images, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: I agree that these images do display tenderness, and for me, that’s one of the wondrous things about the still image. When I framed these images through the viewfinder I didn’t see the tenderness. I was attracted to the processes; the vigorous, painful massages, the dieticians keeping an eye on the fighter’s nutrition, etc. I knew there was substance in the images, but I would only become aware of certain poignant gestures on review. In the second image, a fighter is crowned with a Mongkhon by his trainer. A Mongkhon is something a fighter has earned by achieving a high standard of Muay Thai, and good knowledge of its tradition. When framing this image, I was aware of its significance and the role it would play in the finished series.

Q: I think it is entirely appropriate that you included images of the ring, the crowd, the military style police, and an exuberant fan to convey a clear impression of the context in which these events take place, and reveal the boxers’ world, but what, in your view, is the function of the image, which evidently shows the entrance to the arena presided over by an image of the King of Thailand framed in his regalia?

A: In Thailand the King is everything. As soon as I landed in Bangkok and took my first taxi, this became evident. There was a mini shrine with a photo of the King in prime position on the dashboard, followed by the driver, without prompt, telling me that he loves the King. This made things quite clear. The current King has ruled for more than 65 years and there seems to be a genuine affection towards him. For me, the image showing the picture of the King above the entrance of the Muay Thai stadium portrays his presence in the heart of all Thai people that enter.

Q: You work part-time as a Leica Akademie instructor at the Mayfair store. What can people expect from Akademie workshops? What makes you enjoy teaching them?

A: It’s extremely rewarding to share knowledge. Whether it’s through an hour, one-to-one session with a complete novice, or a one-day program with seasoned photographers. The Akademie workshops are designed to help people get the most out of their cameras regardless of their abilities.

With the technological advancements, these days most compact cameras do a pretty good job in point-and-shoot mode. However, most people don’t realise that their camera is capable of a lot more. My goal is to find out what is going to be useful to the user. Not everyone needs to learn how to shoot in manual mode, but perhaps learning something as simple as exposure compensation for example, can lead to better images. For the more experienced photographer I will pass on personal shooting tips that I’ve learnt on assignment, and try to talk more about photography rather than technicalities. Ultimately, you want to get to a stage where you can forget about the technical side and start thinking creatively.

I enjoy teaching the workshops as I often meet extremely interesting people. In fact, I often learn a lot during the workshops myself. It’s a very satisfying feeling to know that you have shared some knowledge for the greater good of photography!

Q: What are a few things you learned during the course of executing this project that you think are worth sharing with your students at the Leica Akademie, and how do you think these single-subject documentary images relate to your street photography?

A: This project forced me to think about storytelling. I could have taken the fighter’s portraits and left it at that. This was never the intention. I wanted to try and show the complete picture. I still feel I can improve on a lot of things and I would love to go back at a later date and tell more of the story.

Getting back to your question, I would ask my students to start to think about how their images relate to one another and how they can work in a series. I have found that the editing process is just as important as the image capture, and the more research you have done prior to commencing the project, the greater the chance of success. When doing my street photography I approach things in a very different way. There is not really a premeditated agenda. As far as planning, I may decide on a certain area to explore. I may be aware that certain establishments are located in certain places or that a certain event is taking place. However, my street photography is often a very fast reaction to something that draws my attention. In that respect, it is very personal.

Q: You note that your work is constantly evolving, but can you say something about the direction of that evolution seems to be taking? Do you plan to explore any other photographic genres, and are you passionate about any other specific subjects or places that motivate you to document them going forward?

A: With every project I shoot I learn something that I’ll take on board for the next one. I would very much like to shoot more photo documentary stories but I’ll need to dig deeper if I want to progress. I’m currently happily exploring the genre of street photography and this is also something I will continue with. I recently returned from New York where I spent much of my time walking the streets with my camera. With regards to other subjects or places, I would certainly like to return to the village where my father grew up in Bankura, West Bengal. My first and only visit was all too short and I didn’t feel that I had time to concentrate on one particular aspect.

Thank you for your time, Robin!

- Leica Internet Team

Learn more about Robin on his website and Twitter.