Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand. Around the world, it is respected as one of the most demanding and intense martial arts. For one thing, Muay Thai is referred to as the Art of Eight Limbs because it involves striking one’s opponent using hands, elbows, knees and shins rather than just hands (and feet).
Many people with limited economic opportunities choose (are forced?) to earn their living from the sport. Thus, muay matches between children begin at the age of six. These bouts are popular with tourists and Thai bettors alike, making them a part of everyday life.
There is no minimum age for muay fighters. Two or three times a month—when other children might be playing soccer or learning to play the piano—these children are fighting for a pittance and pushing themselves to their physical and mental limits.
Very few of them will ever become rich, popular boxing idols. Even if they do find success in the ring, their careers will likely be over at the age of 25.
When we first published Sandra Hoyn’s story, it received a lot of attention and feedback—most of it very positive, a small but vocal amount of it critical, questioning her depiction of a Thai cultural institution. Assistant editor Alexander Strecker reached out to Hoyn to find out more about the making of this project and her intentions in sharing it with the world.
I want to know other people, I want to know what they think and feel. Even if I can’t speak their language, I get an entrance into other peoples lives through my camera. I want to inform with my photographs and convey to others what is happening in the world. I can’t live from photojournalism, but I love it. It is a wonderful way to discover what’s going on around me.
In 2011, I was on vacation in Thailand. By chance, I happened to see a Muay Thai competition in an arena near Bangkok. I saw a pair of 6 year-old boys fighting, while surrounded by a crowd of shouting, whiskey-drinking men, who were betting real money on the outcome. In an instant, I saw how much pressure was on the children during and after the fight. That’s what I decided to focus my documentary on—the children themselves.
Yet a lot of people continue to see the question of Muay Thai only in black and white. Some defend Muay Thai as a cultural institution, while others are shocked and appalled to see children fighting. I developed both positive and negative feelings about the practice. For example, the children have a lot of fun during their training. And they seem to enjoy pushing themselves to get better at the sport. But again, the bad side arises from the parental pressures and the influence of money.
Enormous (monetary) stakes ride on each match. For example, I once saw a boy knocked out at the end of a match. He was laying on the ground, unconscious as his mother continued to shout angrily. I asked her if she was worried about her injured son—but no, she was mostly upset about having lost so much money on him. Indeed, many children become afraid of the competitions since their parents stake so much on the outcomes. Some parents lose their whole savings on a single bout. In short, I criticize how children are used as a tool for others’ amusement and an instrument to earn money. Just because Muay Thai is an old tradition does not condone these behaviors. But also, just because the sport has developed bad practices, doesn’t make it wholly reprehensible. You have to see a story from all sides.
—Sandra Hoyn, as told to Alexander Strecker
Exhibition of all 50 LensCulture Emerging Talents: Barcelona, October 13-31
Sandra Hoyn’s work, along with photographs from ALL the LensCulture Emerging Talents will be shown in an exhibition at the Galeria Valid Foto in Barcelona. Please join us for the opening party on October 13, 2014—we hope to see you there! See a preview of ALL the winners here in LensCulture.
ALL winners have already been featured at photo festival screenings in Dublin, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Tokyo and Amsterdam so far this year. Next screening in Korea at the Seoul Lunar Photo Fest.