I realized that I was seeing things that should be shared, and when I found myself learning how to do that properly, and feeling like I was good at it, I never stopped.
Through his detailed and emotive work, Jacob Klensin allows us all a deeper peak into the world of Muay Thai and MMA. The photographer, filmmaker and writer took time out of his busy schedule in Philadelphia to let us in on his work and his world.
You’re a photographer, a filmmaker and a writer…what drives you?
I studied history in college and was always fascinated by the creation of the material that will one day define how the future remembers the present. In some strange way, I started to feel that when a person’s story fails to be documented, the very existence of it somehow fades over time. Our reality is constantly being created and redefined by memories and knowledge of the past.
So I guess I ended up feeling that documentary work creates a more complete and honest reality for the future, securing a place in history for stories that might not make it into textbooks. That of course is the loftiest of reasons, and there are others that are much more selfish. Mainly, that I love it.
I had traveled a lot before I even started shooting, and did so pretty aimlessly. I was all over South America, West Africa, the Middle East and ironically, I actually prided myself on the fact that I wasn’t some tourist with a camera always in front of my face. I chose rather to observe and be in the moment, have my adventure and tell the story later. But eventually I realized that I was seeing things that should be shared, and when I found myself learning how to do that properly, and feeling like I was good at it, I never stopped. Ultimately it gave purpose to my curiosity and explorations.
I have felt, and generally continue to feel, the same sentiment of choosing to be in the moment rather than have a camera in front of my face.
For example, I don’t have many photos of the first two, possibly three, years I spent in Thailand. An additional reason being, that while living at a Muay Thai gym, I felt it was intrusive, even disrespectful at times. Sort of like if someone walked into my home now and randomly took photos of me there and at work for the next year. I couldn’t get over the sense that sometimes foreigners walk into gyms and take more than they receive in some ways, this being one of them. At times, it’s objectifying in my opinion and after getting to know people well, I could sense that the fighters would get annoyed but be polite and comply. I don’t sense this in what I’ve seen of your work. How do you achieve this?
That’s a really good question, and one that I won’t have the complete answer to, partly because I think it’s something that photographers should be constantly revisiting. Photographers get accused of being a lot of things in this context, voyeuristic and exploitative to only name a few. I think the most important thing though, is to do good work, tell a story and give the photos a purpose. And while you’re actually shooting, I think there are a lot of ways to be respectful and make people comfortable.
Its tough to say what those things are, and I think a lot of them are very subtle things, like body language and awareness of personal space. Things that I’m sure come into play at times other than just when your taking photos. I think I’ve always tried to let people see me first without a camera, and then introduce it shortly after.
It’s a luxury that’s not always available, but when there’s time, I think leaving the camera aside for a bit first and getting comfortable is incredibly valuable. It’s possible I would make a bad photojournalist because there are lots of times where I leave the camera down, where I just don’t feel comfortable shooting, even though I see a shot. I’m sure I miss some good material because of that, but I think it shows a level of respect that helps me in the long term.
I’m sure there are still times when people want me to get my camera out of their face, or don’t know why they are so interesting to me, but I like to think I minimize that. I think the only person to ever tell me to stop taking photos of him was Mikro Cro Cop, which I honestly just think is funny. And I will say this, on my most recent trip to Buriram, I brought with me a self published book I had put together, half of which was of Namkabuan’s gym and watching them look through and enjoy seeing pictures of themselves in a printed book made me feel confident that I had gained a certain level of trust and comfort.
Why fight photography and film-making?
Well, that was never the plan. About five years ago I was considering going to grad school for documentary photography and was applying to a school in London. My primary interest and goal at the time was to work my way up to documenting conflict zones. But I needed more work in my portfolio. I wasn’t in a position to be independently jetting off to war zones to shoot. So I wanted a project that I could work on right here in Philly. One that I could shoot here and there before and after work.
The original idea was to shoot people training and preparing for all types of combat, beginning with combat sports. I had no intentions of drawing direct comparisons between combat athletes and soldiers. It was really just an excuse for the early stages of a project to reflect my larger goals, in a truly circular and academic fashion which some might call bullshit.
But as soon as I started shooting fighters, I fell in love with it. I found much more than I had expected to, both visually, and in the narrative available to me.
I hadn’t known a lot about the fight world before all of this. I was barely a casual fan with a handful of friends who had trained and a couple who had fought. But I loved it and I felt like I was good at it, even though in reviewing some of my early work, I may have jumped the gun on the latter. I didn’t get into grad school, which I’m actually thankful for and I just continued to shoot. I never had any intention of being a “fight” photographer and certainly not a sports one, I always wanted to be a documentarian. And when that’s your goal and you find a story or people or a an entire world that you have access to, that you feel comfortable and happy and excited to capture, you just keep doing it.
What do you aim to capture in your work?
I always wanted to capture everything other than the action. I wanted to show the dedication, the sacrifice, the emotional and physical toll. The actual fight to me, was always just one small part to the story. A lot of people see violence and brutishness, and from the start I just always saw so much more, and that’s what I wanted to communicate.
The behind the scenes is what’s always interested me. A lot has changed in combat sports in the last five years, but when I started, I almost never found another photographer in the locker rooms, and I liked that. I think at the time, there was still this very large and general discovery of the sport, and so a lot of people were capturing the action itself, and a lot of people wanted to see that.
Now that so many more people are familiar with it, the interest in what else goes on at a fight night I think has grown and people have become more interested in who these fighters actually are. And that’s what I’ve always been after. I think something that I wrote really early on said that I wanted to capture the fighters and not the fights, and that’s always remained true.
What brought you to Thailand?
Like I said, travel has always been a big part of my life. So after shooting combat sports for a bit, I figured I would take it on the road and try and see where it all came from. Even though I started out by shooting a lot of MMA, Muay Thai is what always attracted me the most. Originally I thought I would maybe travel the world and shoot the martial arts and fight techniques from each country I visited. I’m not the only one who’s had that thought/dream and it’s one thats changed a lot over time.
How long were you there?
The first time I was there for a month, the second time closer to four months. I haven’t been back since. After my last time there, I decided that if I’m going to make another international trip to shoot Muay Thai, I want to see what it looks like in parts of the world where you might not expect it. I had the chance to shoot at a gym in the West Bank, and I’d like to do more of that.
What was it about Muay Thai that attracted you to it?
There are a couple things I think, one of which is just that I think its a really beautiful sport. I like that it sits somewhere between traditional eastern martial arts, and modern day ring sports. I think I’ve at times even compared this unique position to the position between traditional fine art, and modern photojournalism that I hoped to find in my work.
When I started shooting MMA, I was surprised by how humble and kind a lot of the fighters were, but when I was exposed to Muay Thai, I found this on a level that I had never before imagined.
There is a calm beauty and casual confidence that I feel like is not only seen before the fights, but somehow during even some of the most vicious and aggressive fights.
Honestly, I love everything about it, especially when talking about it in Thailand. I love how basic it often is; I love the pace of it; I love the Wai Kru; I love the clinch; even aesthetically, the shorts, the mongkol, all of it. It’s a photographer’s dream in the world of combat sports.
And after shooting fighting for a bit, I figured I should train with some of the people I was shooting, to get to know the subject matter a bit better, and striking seemed like the most fun. Fortunately, I ended up training with Coban, and he himself is a huge part of what attracted me to Muay Thai.
I was first introduced to you and your work via P Jiu and P Ham at Lookchaomaesaithong Sit Namkabuan gym in Buriram.
When did you arrive, how long did you stay and how did you find out about the gym?
So when I started training myself at Daddis Fight Camps, where I still train and where I do work as an in house team photographer, Coban was heading up their Muay Thai program. It was an incredibly fortunate time for me to begin my relationship with that gym, and to start training. He is an incredible teacher, obviously a legendary fighter, and also just a great guy.
When I was getting ready to go to Thailand, with very little exact plans, I got in touch with him, or rather, his wife Sandra. He had moved to New York by this time and actually had the grand opening for his gym there the night before I left. They put me in touch with the gym in Buriram and I ended up there for the first half of my trip. This was almost exactly three years ago now. I was only there for about two weeks, but became close with the family and their fighters.
Back in the States I had an exhibit of the work at Coban’s camp, and I am honored to say that he said I brought his childhood to New York with the work, which still hangs in his gym. The show was to benefit Mr. Chotison, the founder of the gym who was ill, and who passed away about three months before I returned the following year. When I got to Thailand the second time, I ended up delaying my arrival at Tiger Muay Thai, where I would be working, to go attend the memorial service for Mr. Chotison and the fights held in his honor. I almost didn’t go, cause of my obligation to Tiger. If I hadn’t, it would probably be one of my bigger regrets to this day.
How did we miss each other?
I was living in Buriram at the time and training at the gym. I’m wondering if I was during the few weeks I was in The Philippines…
Yeah, I don’t know. I was told about you when I was there, by two French guys who were training at the gym at the time, Greg and Pierre. But they just said that there was a Canadian girl who was living there and would help with stuff at the gym, like the website and all, but that you hadn’t been around much at the time. They said maybe I would meet you if you came around, and that was it, so who knows.
What are your thoughts on Buriram in general and Muay Thai in Buriram?
My thoughts on Muay Thai in Buriram…it doesn’t get any better than that. For me, when I’m asked a question like that, it’s really about a big picture for me, and how it will translate in my work. Everything about it there was just exactly what I was looking for. The fight nights in open fields late at night, I would take that over a Vegas venue any day. I liked Muay Thai before I went there, Buriram is where I fell in love with it.
From my understanding you traveled through various regions in Thailand.
What did you learn about Muay Thai through your travels and your work?
Yeah, I pretty much bounced between Buriram, Bangkok and Phuket. Discussing the differences between those three can quickly become a loaded conversation. I learned a lot, and still have a lot to learn.
Namkabuan used to tell me the country makes fighters, the city buys them.
Buriram is where champions are born and made. Bangkok is where they go to become those champions. And Phuket, well…I guess that’s a newer element to the equation.
There are lots of things that I could talk about here, but let’s be honest, the obvious one when comparing these three is the tourist based Muay Thai resort paradise island that Phuket has become. I spent the bulk of my time there working for Tiger Muay Thai. I can say that Phuket is not for me, but at the same token, the fact of the matter is, at this point, no matter what your goals, preferences or styles are, there are now places for you to go in Thailand. And that’s great.
I wasn’t going there to fight, I was going there to capture the root and soul of Muay Thai, and Buriram and Bangkok is where you will find that. But I also wanted to tell the stories of Muay Thai there, and the ever increasing waves of foreigners wanting to train and fight is a big part of that story. There are a lot of trainers from Buriram who have followed the migration to Phuket and there is now the opportunity to go and live on the beach for next to nothing and train with top level champions, as long as you find the right ones and prove to them you’re not just there to party. Me, I’ve just never been a beach guy.
Please explain your relationship with GLORY World Series.
My relationship with GLORY is a casual one, which mainly exists out of a supportive creative friendship with their photographers. James Law, Scott Hirano and Ryan Loco do incredible work. I knew Scott from his work with Muay Thai Authority and had met him a few years ago in LA.
Basically, I told Scott I loved what they were doing and wanted in on it. James is their head photographer, whose talent and credentials extend well beyond the fight world. I told him the same thing I told Scott, although in a more eloquent e-mail, and ended up with the opportunity to assist and do a little shooting with them when they were in New York last year. It went well, we all hit it off and I ended up out in LA for Glory 17 shooting behind the scenes material.
Being around those three I’ve learned so much and have gotten to see how people at the top of the game do things. I’m incredibly thankful of how supportive they were in letting me join in on their team and do what I do. Before Glory 17, James pulled me aside and told me to think of anything I’ve ever wanted to do at a fight night, and to do it. So I did and it was probably the best event I’ve ever been a part of. Hopefully I get to do more of that in the future.
Is capturing the fight game in North America different than it is in Thailand?
Sometimes it feels like it’s not even the same sport, and other times if feels so oddly the same. The locker room is the huge difference. The way Thais warm up and prepare for the fight is just so different. There’s no jumping rope, and there’s certainly no pad hitting. But even more so than that, the entire preparation attitude is so different.
Here, you might have someone competing in a local circuit amateur fight and they have someone to drive them there and take care of everything so there’s no stress and they get a hotel room and show up with a crew, set out their own space in the locker room and have people yelling and hyping them up and so on. I don’t mean to insult any of that, in fact it has a lot to do with what makes my work the visual body that it is. I also think that if your gonna do something like compete in a fight, you should do anything and everything you need to feel comfortable and confident, and I won’t criticize that.
But as a point of comparison, in Thailand, you might have a guy fighting at the absolute top level and he’ll ride his scooter over to the fight with his family of four on the back; or sit in the back of a pickup; wrap his own hands; take a nap; get a massage with Naman Muay; move around and stretch; go do his thing; go home and train in the morning. When you fight every week, there’s a calm and casual nature that really takes over and in my mind, defines the essential difference between fighting here and there.
Other times though, it was as though I forgot I was on the other side of the world because I was shooting fighters getting ready to fight, and that’s just what I do.
Your website mentions you were involved in documentary work in Mexico.
Please fill us in on this.
Yeah that was the first documentary work I ever did. I was in college at Northeastern which has a co-op internship program where you take about six months and do an internship instead of classes. You can have the school find something for you, although all of their options sounded terrible to me, or you can set something up and get them to sign off on it, which is what I did.
I had a friend who had founded a media organization called Small World News. They had gotten their start in Iraq at the beginning of the war, training and equipping Iraqis to tell the stories themselves instead of leaving it up to foreign journalists. They wanted to expand and set up bureaus in other locations and parts of the world, Mexico being one of them. So they trained me for a bit and sent me down there to work with a couple correspondents that they had scouted out on a previous trip. We produced a handful of short pieces on life in Mexico City with a heavy focus on political issues including worker and land rights movements.
When I got back, the guys who had started the company suggested that I take a photo class just to help with my composition and framing. I did, mainly fell in love with analog processes, and didn’t return to video work for about three years.
Is there anywhere we can see your work from this time period?
I don’t think so. Believe it or not, this was before YouTube and the process of hosting and sharing videos was very different. However, the people I was working for, Small World News, are still very active and have done some really amazing things in the world of journalism. They recently launched an app called Story Maker (not available on iPhones) and do a lot of work to help allow anyone to tell their own story, especially in places that may not normally be so empowered or equipped to do so.
What’s your favourite aspect of what you do?
You know, there’s a lot that I love about it, but honestly, my favorite part might be how comfortable I feel doing it. The first time I brought my fiancé to a fight night she said it was so clear how in my element I truly was. That she could see so clearly that this is what I’m meant to be doing, that
I’m in the zone and doing what I love. And you can’t beat that.
But on top of that, I get this crazy all access view of a sport that is still so foreign to so many people. And for that matter, I’ve learned to seek out that same behind the scenes vantage point to any subject matter I approach.
Are you working on any projects now / have any you’re ruminating about for the future?
My future is a busy one, and a lot has changed in my life since this project started, which has a big effect on how the work is being produced right now. I got engaged recently, am working on buying a house, I have a few old vehicles now in various stages of repair which I do myself, I’m working on building a small cabin in the woods, from scratch, and have a relatively new day job doing contracting of different sorts.
I was trying for a while to do my own media work more full time, but putting a priority on making money doing what I love, was making me not love it anymore. I’m fortunate that my current work that pays the bills is still something that I enjoy and find incredibly satisfying, but I wasn’t able to say the same when it came to photography. So some shifts in focus, some breaks, some fresh approaches, a little breathing room, have all been really good for me in the past year.
My main project now is that I’m sifting through my work of the past five years and am hoping to release a book within the next year.
I’m fortunate to have a handful of really productive, creative and encouraging friends, including my fiancé, who have been helping to push this project along. I’m not yet sure what the final product, or its release will look like, but I feel like the time has come for it, and I’m incredibly excited about the possibility.
Other than that, I’m working to produce some more video work. Over the last year or so I’ve shot a handful of interviews with Paulo Tocha. Initially it was just going to be a short little profile piece, but he’s got a lot to say and a story that deserves a lot more, so I’m still working on it. I want to produce higher quality work with what will probably be less frequency.
Also, I’m expanding out of the fight world. Like I said at the beginning, I never wanted to be a sports shooter, or a even a fight one, so after five years of shooting almost nothing but, I’m working to take my experience gained in the sport and apply it elsewhere. But I’ll never walk away from it entirely, I love it too much. Anyone involved in Muay Thai will know, its not just a hobby you lose interest in, I think it’ll always be a part of what I do.
In terms of expanding out of the fight world, what subject matter do you find yourself being drawn to?
All kinds of work, all kinds of subject matter. Like I said, for a bit I was trying to explore work that had more commercial marketability, but that’s not me. So I think I’m back to wanting to pursue really basic, really stepped back documentary work. I like the idea of personal profiles, that’s actually where I was at when I started doing stills.
I had realized in Mexico that my ideas for projects had become more and more simplified. I just wanted to show people who I thought were interesting, and that was it, and I think I’m back there. I have a long list of project ideas, some still in the fight world, a lot outside of it, and I hope to just pursue them as the opportunities arise.
All I want is to produce work that I’m proud of, that other people are proud to be a part of, and that everyone else enjoys viewing. What that work looks like, what the subject matters are, when it will be produced, who knows, all I can really do is go to cool places, do cool things, and have a camera on hand when it all happens.
Where can we find you?