Ameena, tell us about your Eight Limbs series…
Eight Limbs is a series documenting life at a Muay Thai gym on the small island of Koh Samui, not far off the coast of mainland Thailand, where I spent a month towards the end of 2018 training in and documenting the martial art.
…a Muay Thai gym on the small island of Koh Samui, not far off the coast of mainland Thailand…
It’s something of a continuation or sequel to a previous project; for my final university assignment, I took off to China to a school of Kung Fu and created a documentary series Hard Work which was later published as a book by Brown Owl Press. Since then I’ve been wanting to do something similar, and I wanted to continue exploring the world of martial arts.Array
What interests you specifically about martial arts?
Much of my interest in martial arts started with watching the incredibly dramatic and visually striking Asian-made martial arts films, films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. What truly gripped me was to see the women in main roles and performing seemingly impossible, powerful moves. As a young girl, I was a bit of a roughhouser and enjoyed fighting, so when I got older I wanted to try martial arts myself, though it wasn’t until university that I really got involved.
As a young girl, I was a bit of a roughhouser and enjoyed fighting, so when I got older I wanted to try martial arts myself
The extraordinary settings and landscapes in the films, always so mythical and magical, fully lodged themselves in my mind as well. Thinking about it now, it’s clear that these films have also influenced my photography, long before I even picked up a camera.
What distinguishes Muay Thai from other martial arts, and how did you discover it?
Muay Thai is long regarded as one of the most devastating martial arts, while Kung Fu, especially Shaolin Kung Fu, is seen as more performative, more art than sport, with little real-world application. It also includes the use of knees and elbows in the practice, which many other martial arts prohibit due to the crippling damage that can be caused. For this reason also, Muay Thai is known as the “art of eight limbs”.
Muay Thai is long regarded as one of the most devastating martial arts
It was through mixed martial arts (MMA) that I discovered Muay Thai – it typically makes up a large part of a mixed martial artist’s repertoire. MMA has gained huge traction in the western world in the last few years, and I spent some time training in mixed martial arts. I was intrigued by this precise and brutal martial art, so when I left my full-time job in September 2018, I decided to take some time to travel and headed to Thailand for a month to train and make some new work. The series is a simple documentation, almost a diary, told from my own point of view.Array
Can you talk about your experience of Muay Thai and how important your personal involvement was in the project? Do you think you would have achieved the same level of intimacy in the images if you didn’t get involved yourself?
I have always been more of a participant than an observer, even outside of photography. Though it’s a difficult way to work and difficult to find the right balance, it’s the only way to work for me. A lot of the topics I like to explore stem from my own interests and also my own experience, so it’s become natural for me to document the things I am involved in, and as I develop my practice, to get involved in the things I want to document.
This project, and others, would look very different without my participation. This is especially true of the communities I get involved in, precisely because that’s what they are – communities. To document a community from the outside is to not truly document that community at all.
It’s an essential part of my work ethic, even when the involvement isn’t fun or enjoyable. Perhaps especially so. My month in Thailand wasn’t the best: my initial project concept completely fell flat and for a while I thought I had nothing to show for it. Then, because of that, I became hugely unmotivated and didn’t make as much work as I could have; the location I chose didn’t work well for me, in that it was not as much of a long-term community as I’d hoped – it was more of a gym, and so, more transient.
It was the small things too: the weather was terrible. I couldn’t ride a moped so I couldn’t really explore; the training was incredibly exhausting and ran from Monday through to Saturday evening, so Sundays were spent out and about when possible and there was never really time to recover. My big error, I think, was that I had high expectations; I wanted to repeat the wonderful experience I had in China while making the previous project.Array
However, only after I finished the edit did I realise that all these feelings came through in the work and essentially made the series: isolation, claustrophobia, the constant pressure of the humidity, the unending sweat, the darkness from training inside the gym all day and emerging only once the sun had set… in the end, the series became a personal narrative.
Explore Ameena’s other works at ameenarojee.co.uk.