If you’ve seen Muay Thai photos you’ve seen Jeff Dojillo’s work. Working hard behind the lens the Los Angeles based photographer has been capturing quintessential moments in Muay Thai since 2004. I got a chance to talk to him about aesthetics, the growth of the sport, and the way Muay Thai changed his life.
How did you get involved in Photography?
I got into photography around 2004, I was an art student in San Diego and was dabbling in different mediums. At the time I was doing a lot of Hip Hop music; rapping and producing. Of course I had to do a lot foot work to get people to the shows. I would hand out flyers and hit up Kinkos to make photocopies. We would make over $1000 a show which is pretty good for an Asian kid when it wasn’t cool for Asian kids to rap. I did shows with KRS One, Atmosphere, Visionaries, Lyrics Born, I did shows from LA to the Bay. I was nominated best album of the year in 2001 & 2004.
I went through a horrible break up and it manifested through my art. I was taking a photography class and I found a way to express myself that I couldn’t through drawing, or painting, or music. I learned how to create dialogue rather than art for commerce. I was doing a lot of experimental things; cross processing negatives in chemistry, using vintage cameras (I never used digital), using large format cameras etc. Through out the years I ended up fine-tuning my skill so that I was really respected by my peers as a photographer. I had found something I was really good at. I wanted to teach at the college level so I came to San Francisco and got my graduate degree.
How did you get into Muay Thai?
When I first started doing photography I was 210lbs. I had high blood pressure, bad cholesterol, and I had that bad break up. I was depressed. I was 26 years old. I realized that hot chicks don’t like fat dudes. I’d done Muay Thai when I was younger with Bryan Dobler. He had a small garage he worked out of in Upland California. I had to look it up Muay Thai in the yellow pages. Ha. I was so obsessed with Blood Sport. I watched all of Billy Blanks videos trying to find Muay Thai. I read every issue of Black Belt magazine trying to find Muay Thai techniques. Anyways Dobler had a cement floor, no ring, and fools were being swept on the garage floor. I knew I loved Muay Thai but wasn’t ready for it.
In 2006 I went to The Boxing Club La Jolla which is home of Melchor Manor and Artem Sharoshkin, in San Diego. I became the healthiest I ever was. I went from 210 to 150 in a year! I was working out six days a week. I went through a year of training and ended up on Manchor’s fight team. I was pretty green still but I was dedicated. I went through a crazy test to get on the team. There were thirty people there. I had to spar with 10 different people who were bigger than me. I had to take a bunch of leg kicks and these guys were trying to drop me. I had to kick leg kick people as well. A bunch of the girls were crying. Manchor told me “If you don’t kick this girl in the leg and you don’t drop her you’re losing points!” The girl was already sobbing and so I was like “whack!” I really wanted to be on the fight team.
I never ended up fighting though. I’d gone from one year of experience to a bunch of advanced guys fucking me up. I’m not the type of guy to say, “I’m going to fight.” I wanted my coach to say, “You’re going to fight.” I believe in my coach and when he said “When you going to fight Jeff,” I said, “When you think I’m ready.”
I took a break and ended up going to San Francisco for grad school and got back on track with things. While I was there I trained with Jongsanaan and I waited for him to tell me that I was ready to fight but he’s not the type. You have to say “I want to fight” with Jongsanaan. Everyday I still do padwork, spar, bag work etcetera as much as I can. I help other students out at the Yard in L.A.
How did you merge your two loves photography and Thai Boxing?
I was done with grad school and wanted to go back to Los Angeles, where my family was from. It’d been ten years since I was around my family. I also felt it was a better community for art, at least commercial work. Jongsanaan and I were still pretty tight so he told me that he had some fighters coming down to L.A. and wanted to hang out. He brought down Coke Chunuwat, it was the card that Nathan Willet fought Chike Lindsay. I showed up to the weigh ins to say hi to Jongsanaan and there were no photographers. No one had a professional set up. David Huey and all the WMC guys were using cheap ass cameras trying to take pictures of the weigh-ins and I had a professional camera. I said, “Hey can I get a press pass? I’ll take photos and give them to you for free.” I wanted to watch the fights. I didn’t want any money and so I shot my first fight.
Someone gave me a flyer for the Saenchai versus Yamato bout, the card David Huerta was helping promote along with Montri Suppanich. I gave a business card to Montri and I started shooting all the MTAA fights.
I always wanted to do a 24/7 for Thai boxing. My very first video was with Artem Sharoshkin. I documented his pad work, and his coaches. I love pad work. A lot of us Muay Thai guys can watch pad work all day. I didn’t think it would receive that big of a response but it did.
David Huerta saw what I did and he asked me to do one. Kevin Ross was fighting for the Diamond Belt against Saenchai and what better way to expose the sport than showing the best American fighter against the best Thai fighter but no one wanted to fund me. It was a historical moment in American Muay Thai., I wish I had the chance to document it.
David Huerta asked again and I did a video, Inside the Fight, for their America versus Thailand show. I decided to do it and figured I’d be happy if I got a thousand views. Without promotion, without any big media backing I’ve gotten 60,000 views for each video.
Joe Schilling and Drew Manese started Can’t Stop Crazy and they asked me to do videos for them. Kevin Ross, Romie Adanza, Ky Hollenbeck, Miriam Nakamoto and Chaz Mulkey were apart of it. I recommended that Cant Stop Crazy add Tiffany van Soest and I did her first video. I knew that she would we be something big. There aren’t many girls in her weight class that have the same caliber of fight style. I told Schilling and Manese to think about her. She was put on the roster and then next thing you know she started blowing right up. She mixes a lot of kickboxing with a lot of karate and it works for her.
I’ve slowed down on the video as it takes a while to create and takes a lot of me. Plus there is not a lot of funding for it.
How does your work in video and photography shape people’s perceptions of Muay Thai fighters and how do you try to represent the boxers?
The way I do photography is based on my personal preferences. I’m not looking for the knock out shot. If I get it cool, but it’s not something I’m trying to capture. There are 20 other photographers ringside trying to capture that. Those photographers are snapping pics of all the kicks and punches. How many more pics of the same kick can we get? What I’m trying to show is the culture in the sport and so I think the locker room is important. What others haven’t gotten is the prayer, the padwork, the stress before the fight. As a fine art photographer I’m drawn to that. When I started doing photography for Muay Thai there weren’t guys in the locker room, now more people are focusing on that.
The best and most poignant moments are the ones before fighters get called into the ring. That’s when they are the most focused. I want to show an encompassing view of the entire fight not just the punching and kicking.
When it comes to video I want to show the fighters as best as I can but I also want to sell them as well. A lot of the videos are more scripted, not the interview, but that I’m putting the best pieces together. I direct the padwork, I direct the shots. I know what looks good. I know what angles to capture from having been in the sport along with having trained. If you notice my cinematic work is very photographic.
What is some of the background work involved that people don’t see when looking at photography or video work?
In photography things are much easier. I have a work flow. I shoot and digest. Depending on the deadlne for the work, I wait for the other photographers to put their work out for an event. I don’t want to put out anything that other photographers have put out. Sometimes things overlap but I want my stuff to be unique. If I’ve taken 100 shots I’ll only put out 15. I edit it all down, making sure nothing is repetitive both in the immediate series and with my previous body of work. I feel like that helps me evolve my style.
Video is a different beast. You have to deal with lighting, sound, and action. You also have to edit it all down to five minutes. After five minutes your viewers lose their attention. If you search Youtube the most powerful videos are the ones you can look at on your phone that last no longer than 5 minutes. Sometimes I have a week of footage at 5 hours each day! That’s 25 hours of footage that needs to be trimmed down to five minutes. I have to make sure the whole thing is cohesive so it takes me about a month. I shoot, edit, do post production, graphics, and music all by myself.
Does any of your work in particular hold meaning to you?
Of all the photos that I’ve done I’ve liked Joe Schilling winning at Glory in LA the most. He was very emotional. He hadn’t fought in a year and a half. He entered the tournament and kicked the rust out in the first bout then knocked down Artem Levin. No one has done that since Yodsanklai. I didn’t think he would win in that fashion. I thought he had a good chance to win but I didn’t think he would drop Levin with a superman punch. Even Levin said he was punished for not taking Schilling so seriously. That’s really special. When you’re close to fighters and you see the struggle they go through any amount of positive emotion in their life is awesome and I am really happy to be part of that.
Also some of my first Muay Thai photographs that were in Thailand at Fairtex Bangplee included some of my most award winning work. I had two photographs win and was featured in an exhibit that traveled around Bangkok, Chang Mai and came to Los Angeles for a show at Thai New Year. It was honest. It was shot on film. There were no promoters. It was just me loving the sport.
What is your role as a photographer within the sport?
With my photography I feel like I have a responsibility to help the sport grow and not just shoot the professional fighters. If I don’t help the sport develop by shooting amateur fighters, female fighters, and the locker room along with professional fighters I feel I am being selfish and only promoting myself. The job of the photographer is to help the sport thrive.
You did a series of portraits with female fighters, Muay Ying. What are you trying to do with that?
That’s an ongoing series. A lot of the women are still amateurs. I wanted to do a portrait series of what women look like inside and outside the ring. To show that women look like every day women but once they put their gear on they’re tough women. They are just as important to the sport as men especially since the sport is so young here in the States. They have an equal chance to come up. I want to shoot a broad range of woman of different ethnicities, of different genders, at different work places – servers, lawyers, doctors etc.
What are some of the aesthetics involved in the fight world?
In regards to the bigger shows everyone is taking a bite out of the UFC. The glam look of UFC is used as a staple base line. The promotion’s creative directors can either separate themselves from the UFC look or continue along that trend. So for example Contender has a very traditional look with black and white photographs. Glory and Lion Fight have pictures of their fighters similar to the UFC.
In America they want the trash talking, pro American, bad ass and that’s why Joe Schilling was a big part of Lion Fight’s success. Schilling is very vocal and that’s how he gets fights. Closed mouths don’t get fed. You wanna fight? You have to say you want to fight. Even with Schilling’s distinguishable voice you also need the quiet ones like Kevin Ross. You need both sides. You need balance.
Where do you think the sport is going?
I think Muay Thai here in the states has hit a plateau. There aren’t a lot of Thais coming over. We need more than just Lion Fight. Whether on a small or large level we need more promotions…More fighters need to come out of America. I think Kickboxing will grow but Muay Thai will stay stagnant until the US births better and more fighters.
A lot of top level guys are at a stand still. Ky Hollenbeck is stuck between two careers, Kevin Ross is still doing really well but he says it himself, he’ll fight until his body tells him otherwise. Miriam Nakamoto is doing Mixed Martial Arts and so isn’t fighting Muay Thai anymore. Schilling is starting to reignite his MMA career. There are girls like Zoila Fausto who are barely getting any fights. I think it’s hard for Romie Adanza to find fights at 115lbs. Chaz Mulkey is all done. I think there needs to be more fights, more promotions and more revenue in the sport. We have to keep our eyes out for the next generation while our current pros enjoy the success they deserve.
I think a union for fighters would be good as a way to teach fighters to read contracts, teach them about insurance, teach them about the business side of Muay Thai etc. I think referees need continuing education and need to learn how to judge fights. Referees and officials need to be constantly updated.
How long do you think you’ll shoot the sport for?
A lot of people get burnt out. There are politics, the promotions, then people get over the sport itself. They start feeling it gets boring but I come back to training. I love Muay Thai. It’s more than just the photography. It has helped me a lot me a lot in my life so I feel I owe the sport.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I would like to thank everyone that has supported me, been a fan of my work, and support the projects I do. Cant Stop Crazy is not just a brand, its my family. Thank you to the WMC, MTAA, WCK, GLORY, for letting me be apart of the journey. Thank you Matt and Nop from My Muay Thai, the OG blog that did it for the love of the sport.