Most often when we see portraits of boxers, the images are pumped full of an almost superhuman strength in portrayals as awe-inspiring as they are isolating. Photographer Troy Schooneman, however, has a different goal. The Australian amateur with a masterful eye has lived in Thailand for the past 15 years, many of which he's spent photographing those intwined with the art of Thai boxing, also known as Muay Thai or มวยไทย.
"The overwhelming majority stay for a week or two, often joining organized boxing tours –- and for these young men, learning Muay Thai is a fun diversion and a wonderful opportunity of getting fit while enjoying time away from home," Schooneman writes on his website. There are others, however, who despite the grueling physical and mental challenges faced by serious practitioners of Muay Thai, choose to remain in Thailand for longer periods, often years, in the hope of making a living from this ancient sport. It is this second group of fighters that are the focus of my portrait work."
Schooneman, who goes under the pseudonym iconic19 for his artwork, captures elegant portraits of those practicing the perilous Thai sport, donning athletic shorts, boxing gloves and little else. Yet despite the macho brutality of the sport that binds these subjects together, Schooneman's portraits display something else quite entirely. Soft, sensitive and even a bit afraid, Schooneman's subjects stray from their masculine stereotypes to portray the full range of emotion involved in a sport so thrilling yet also terrifying.
We reached out to Schooneman to learn more about his gorgeous glimpse into the world of Muay Thai.
What is your day job and what initially drew you to to photography?
I am a partner in a law firm focusing on cross-border mergers and acquisitions transactions. I've always been interested in sculpture and painting but have no talent for either. I am particularly fascinated by the beautiful formal portraiture of certain 17th and 18th century painters and I felt that I wanted to use photography to try to create simple portraits without contrived narrative or unnecessary props. As someone without any skill in painting or sculpture, I felt that photography was my best bet at trying to create something visually appealing in the realm of portraiture.
How did you become acquainted with these fighters?
I have always been interested in Muay Thai and have followed a number of the fighters over the years. I was friends several of my portrait subjects through Facebook and made contact with them that way. Also, some of the portrait subjects have introduced me to other fighter friends who they think may also be interested in my portrait project.
What do you hope to communicate with these photos?
In my portraits I hope to uncover the profound beauty created by juxtaposing the strength, courage and physical presence of these fighters with emotions that they often hide from view - such as loneliness, fear, uncertainty, and sadness.
I wanted to create simple yet distinctive portraits of the fighters who bring to life the discordant emotions that the spectator often experiences when viewing the sport.
What was one of the greatest challenges of the series?
One of the greatest challenges I find is to explain to the fighters why I would like to take that photograph and what I am trying to achieve with these portraits. Many of them will tell me that they are not models nor are they photogenic and they sometimes wonder why I would be interested to take their portrait. Who on earth would be interested in my photo, they ask me.
I find great beauty in sadness and this is something that is not always easy to explain to the fighters that sit for my portraits. I never ask them to smile. Instead, during my photo shoots I play rather sad music and encourage them to recall times in their lives that they have faced difficulties. I do this in an attempt to evoke emotions, expressions and glances that I would otherwise never see.