Aaron Joel Santos has been documenting Muay Thai fighters in Thailand for the past year, and recently, he was asked to photograph the martial arts experts for a piece in the New York Times. Aaron had previously shot the sport in Bangkok prisons, so he was familiar with its almost sacred significance in the country when he was approached with the assignment.
I don’t normally shoot sports, but I am interested in the narratives and personal histories that surround these fighters.
This art of self-defense originates from the 16th century and closely resembles modern-day mixed martial arts. Commonly referred to as the “art of eight limbs” because of its combined use of fists, elbows, knees, and shins, Muay Thai is a sport rich in discipline and skill. The sport has changed significantly in its long history; for instance, boxing gloves have replaced bare knuckles. But despite the changes through history, Muay Thai has lost none of its exotic appeal and even mystique.
In order to get access to the fighters and their training facilities, Aaron exchanged texts with local fight promoters who would occasionally give him a location, and occasionally give him a dead-end lead. Going back and forth through the hot, congested streets of Bangkok, Aaron found himself on the first day of shooting running directly from the airport to the gym (equipment bags in hand).
It was a lot of me texting the fight promoter as I was on the train from the airport, desperately trying to get directions to the gym they were at. From there, just a lot more texting and running around in 100-degree Bangkok heat.
Luckily for Aaron, he is very good at his day job. Sweat was no concern as he worked quickly in the gyms, focusing on each fighter’s narrative and their connection to the sport so deeply entrenched in the Thailand culture, from the children learning to the adults observing.
All parties involved were thrilled with the pictures, including the fighters, and Aaron was glad to stay on their good side.
Aaron hopes that his schedule will allow him to get back to these gyms in the future and get another look at the Muay Thai fighters.
I’d love to revisit it and see the fighters through some more training and matches down the line.
To view more of Aaron’s work, visit aaronjoelsantos.com