Two boxers doing their thing at a Muay Thai tournament in Bangkok.
One of the things photographers hear a lot is “you get paid to just go around and take pictures?” Photojournalists especially, because we’re in the public eye so much, but photographers of all stripes hear it almost every day.
Well yes, I guess in a way, we get paid to “just” go around and take pictures. But it’s a lot more complicated than that. For freelance photojournalists (and travel photographers), the job is about ½ photography, ½ captions and ½ paperwork (invoicing, research, client outreach etc). In other words, it’s about 1.5 jobs and photography, our favorite and most interesting part, is the part we get to practice the least.
The reality is that of the three parts of the job, captions are as important as the pictures. You can make a great photo but without a caption; the basic who, what, where, why of what’s going on in the photo, not many magazines or newspapers will touch it. The caption has to have context so an editor or picture researcher looking at the photo in six months or a year knows what’s going on in your masterpiece. For the freelancer, that third half is the most important, and (for me) flat out least fun, part of the job.
A couple of weeks ago I went walkabout in central Bangkok. I was more or less “cruising” for wild art - some features I could send to ZUMA Press, the photo agency with whom I most work. I was hoping to find some cultural stuff or maybe something political. Instead I found an international Muay Thai tournament. The tournament featured fighters from Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia and was being held outdoors, on the plaza of a Bangkok shopping mall.
I’m not a sports photographer. I never have been. When I was working for newspapers, sports were about my least favorite thing to photograph. I’m in the minority on that, a lot of newspaper photographers love photographing sports but for me sports were always something I had to cover, not something I wanted to cover. (I know, I know, that’s why they call it work.) Fortunately, there are things I like to photograph (politics) that others don’t like, so with the help of cooperative editors I got to work political events while the sports photographers got to photograph sports. It was a win-win and a luxury a lot of newspaper photographers, especially at a smaller papers, don’t have.
I haven’t photographed Muay Thai since coming to Thailand, so I started to work the tournament photographing boxers warming up, some of the early bouts and some features. I was enjoying the afternoon and enjoying photographing something pretty far outside of my comfort zone.
About halfway through the tournament I realized I was in a caption jam. In order to send the photos to ZUMA I would need complete captions - the fighters’ names, their countries, their weight class, the outcome of the fight etc. And there was no program (at least not in English) so I wasn’t able to grab a roster or program to identify the fighters. I could identify boxers by the colors of their trunks but tracking down the information would mean going around to each boxer (or his trainer) and getting the information.
I had to balance off the amount of work that was going to entail vs. the possibility of making a stock sale of the photos and came to the conclusion that this was going to be a losing proposition. Stock sales of sports is tricky. Sports photos, to be as sold as stock, need to be perfect - perfect light, perfect framing, clean backgrounds etc. and this wasn’t a big enough tournament to warrant daily coverage in any of the newspapers or magazines that usually pick up my work. I was photographing an outdoor boxing tournament in mid-afternoon light and it was starting to rain. It was not perfect.
So rather than “work” I made photos for fun. If I had been really “working” I would have found a way to get names and information, ideally by focusing on just on or two boxers that I knew I would be able to identify.