Spanish-born but Hong Kong-based Victor Fraile wasn’t supposed to be a photographer.
He didn’t want to make a living the same way his parents, uncles, and cousins did. His passions lay elsewhere.
Although I came from a family where photography was a way of living, I wasn’t really interested in following in their footsteps. I was passionate about two things: sports and the ocean.
But you know the old saying about apples and trees. Don’t get me wrong, Victor was still dovetailing his twin loves as he worked in marketing. Once he added a camera to the mix, though, everything changed.
I was spending most of my time diving, fishing, and surfing until the day I decided to borrow a camera and some film from my dad to photograph my friends surfing. Right after that, everything started to move very fast. I ended up pausing my career in marketing to work for surf magazines, shooting in places like Hawaii, Indonesia, Maldives, and the Canary Islands.
Victor — who’s covered three Olympic Games, been published in Sports Illustrated, and lists Nike as a client — has successfully turned his athletic and aquatic interests into a career. Part of what makes his love of sports so pure is that he has been around and shot so many of them — even the more obscure ones like sailing, equestrian, and Formula 1.
But this story isn’t about any of that. It’s about a personal project based mostly around a far different sporting category: fighting.
Apart from the Japanese and South Korean Kendo, Jiu-jitsu, and Taekwondo, I wasn’t really familiar with the different styles of fighting in Asia. So, I researched what’s practiced across the different countries. The variety is phenomenal!
Victor’s documentation of the medley of martial arts, muscle building, and mud wrestling found and performed throughout the Eastern world (in some cases by Westerners) has taken years to shoot and started more than a decade ago.
When I moved from Spain to Hong Kong in 2007, I developed a deep interest in martial arts and the different types of fighting styles in the East. Although I am now spending most of my time in America, I have spent the past 11-plus years in Asia. It was there I conceived the idea for the project.
I first connected with the Muay Thai fighters while I was in Bangkok on assignment there. It was supposed to be more of a one-time shoot than a long-term project, but I decided to keep it going.
The Spaniard, who practiced karate for years as a kid, has photographed Muay Thai fighters, World’s Strongest Man competitors, and Kushti wrestlers — among other types of athletes — in places like Thailand, China, and India. Once Victor gets in touch with a local gym or fighter, he heads to their stomping grounds and immerses himself in their world.
Even though these images were created years apart, the consistency of Victor’s setup glazes the work with a sheen of continuity.
In terms of style and equipment, I knew it could take years to photograph this project, so I wanted to have a consistent dark background and basic lighting for all the shoots. That way, I could keep the attention on the subjects and allow the images to match up, even though they were captured at completely different times.
As you can glean from the imagery, Victor’s goal isn’t to give viewers a tutorial on how to practice these sports, nor is it to document the differences between them (we have YouTube and Wikipedia for that). No, Victor’s not focused on the fighting or weightlifting — he’s focused on the fighters and weightlifters.
The most interesting part of this project is, without a doubt, the opportunity to understand the motivation of the people I’ve photographed. I learned that there are guys who are choosing to fight, but there are also guys without better choices. For them, getting into a ring is their only way of making a living.
Indeed, there is quite a bit of commonality in the fighters’ and weightlifters’ reasoning for making this their livelihood. Think of the “path to a better life” category as the overlapping area of the Venn Diagram which illustrates the various motivating factors behind pursuing fighting or weightlifting. The remaining parts of the circles are where the meat of the story resides.
Let’s start in Thailand. Many of the children lead lives of which most — but certainly not all — denizens of developed countries cannot begin to conceive. For many of these kids, fighting is the only thing that gives their world a modicum of structure.
Most of the young kids I spoke with are orphans and/or immigrants from countries like Laos and Cambodia. Muay Thai is a way of living for them. It brings discipline and purpose to their lives in places where schools are not an option for everyone in need.
One story I heard was about a 10-year-old Muay Thai fighter. He’s an orphan who arrived illegally in Thailand from Laos with his parents before they passed away in an accident. I, like most of the people I know, had a very comfortable, first-world childhood. So I was struck by these children and their lives. They are of the age when they should be playing and having fun instead of punching and kicking.
Muay Thai — which literally means “Thai boxing” — does provide a glimmer of hope for young children desperate to scratch out a better life for themselves. Not everyone makes it big, but there are people from whom these pre-pubescent fighters can draw inspiration.
Ramazan “The Punisher” Ramazanov is a seven-time Muay Thai World Champion. He moved to Thailand when he was 15 to pursue his career in the fighting scene.
Fame and fortune await the precious few who make it through the skinny end of the bottleneck that epitomizes these cutthroat worlds. Victor found this out years after he photographed some truly giant people.
These behemoths take part in the global competition “World’s Strongest Man,” which happened in China in 2013 and was close enough to Victor’s former home for him to go photograph the contestants.
I had the chance to portrait these big guys in south China a few years ago. I did know about this competition on TV, but personally witnessing these guys lifting those weights or pulling a multi-ton truck is a different story. To deadlift weights that exceed 1,000 pounds, they must fuel their body with the right proteins and also consume a massive number of calories.
Take another look at the panorama above. Recognize that guy fourth from right sporting a tattoo sleeve? He’s procured some of that fame and fortune I spoke of, just in a completely different line of work. Here’s a better look at this mountainous gentleman:
I couldn’t help but laugh out of surprise when I saw Hafthor “The Mountain” Björnsson acting on “Games of Thrones” years after the shoot in China. He’s even bigger than when I photographed him!
Björnsson had a tidy five-season run on arguably the most culturally significant show of its generation and, like Ramazan Ramazanov, proved that a person can get to the top of the food chain via fighting/weightlifting.
The third and final stop on this journey is New Delhi, India, more specifically the “Akharas” where Kushti wrestlers train in the early morning (it’s too hot there to do so in the afternoon).
So far, India has been the most revealing, intense place I have visited. Your five senses are fully stimulated with the sounds, smells, density, and pollution in the air.
Having the opportunity to photograph the Kushti wrestlers while my friend, Bernat Armange, was filming a story was priceless. He had been living in New Delhi for a few years at that point, so getting access was simple.
What makes the Indians’ impetus for pursuing this sport, also known as Pehlwani, different than that of the other athletes highlighted here is that it has nothing to do with finding structure or fame in life. It’s simply about getting a job.
Kushti wrestlers do not dream about medals or tournaments. Their main dream is mundane: be successful enough in mud-clay wrestling to get a government job. The Indian government reserves a number of positions for those who have made a mark in sport.
The dreams might be mundane, but Victor’s documentation of the wrestlers is anything but. In this writer’s view, the most mesmerizing picture from the entire project came from the trip to the Akhara:
The portrait of Nasir Hussain came out very strong. It’s a very graphic and self-explanatory retelling of what a Kushti wrestler’s training routine is like.
Victor’s global gallivanting exposed him to new cultures, ideas, and fighting styles, but his ability to connect these vastly different athletes brings the work together. His love of sport and empathetic worldview work in concert to create a truly enthralling set of images.
The thrilling part of this particular project is the opportunity to spend time with such an incredible variety of people that have one thing in common: they use their mental strength to push their bodies to the limit, either fighting against adversaries or lifting massive weights.
See more of Victor’s work at victorfraile.com.
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