Urban photographer. Martial artist. Day trader. Graffiti artist. David Sharabani, better known by the moniker Lord K2, chats with MTG about his latest muse: the Art of Eight Limbs. . .
“I SEE GRACE, NOT VIOLENCE”
Award-winning photographer, Lord K2 (aka. David Sharabani) went from graffiti to Muay Thai. He’s photographed everything from the Thai national team in Belarus, and everywhere from Omnoi Stadium in Bangkok, to the impoverished region of Isaan.
Today, Muay Thai Guy sits down with the the man behind the lens.
“My documentation is not about me and my camera – it’s a collective body of work between myself and the community.”
MTG: What’s so graceful about Muay Thai, anyway?
K2: Having watched European kickboxing on TV before my first visit to Thailand, I was under the assumption, like many, that those who choose to pursue this martial art did so for the joy of expressing inner violence. After I watched my first fight in Thailand 15 years ago at the Lumpinee Stadium, my views changed. Having subsequently trained at a Thai gym and spent time within the community, my change of perception was confirmed. In all my time documenting, I haven’t met one Thai fighter who is into the violent element. They are simply professional athletes pursuing sports careers.
Regarding the grace part… It’s the humility, [the] respect to their opponents, and the honorable code of conduct that surprised me. There tends to be an air of grace when the fighters enter the ring – very relaxed, in tiptop physical shape and with only one desire – to win – and preferably with minimal damage to their opponent. The other element of grace is in the way they fight to the sound of wai kru; the flow of movement is akin to that of a ballerinas, their awareness similar to that of a meditative monk.
MTG: What attracts you to Muay Thai?
K2: I used to practice Wing Chun Kung Fu. That bored the hell out of me. I moved on to boxing, which I enjoyed very much. I progressed to Muay Thai and I liked the extra dimension of using eight limbs. I would then watch Muay Thai to learn sequences.
Currently I’m most attracted to the atmosphere in the big stadiums. When a stadium is packed full of gamblers egging on their fighter, the atmosphere is truly exhilarating, especially since the audience have a vested interest in the matches.
MTG: What made you want to do a photo documentary on Muay Thai?
K2: It was an organic decision. I firstly did a lot of research to make sure that no one had previously done a photo documentary on Muay Thai, for ethical reasons. To my surprise, it hadn’t been documented before.
I also wanted to show the public what Muay Thai was really about. By documenting the essence of the culture and lifestyle, I would give an insight little known to the outside world, who are generally only familiar with what goes on inside the ring. To me, fighting is only a minor part of the whole picture.
MTG: Which parts of Thailand have you covered?
K2: I have covered all five regions of Thailand. It was important to me to make this documentation as thorough as possible by covering the big stadiums in Bangkok, the grass routes in Isaan, the provinces in Northern Thailand, as well as the touristic arenas in Chiang Mai and the islands.
MTG: Why spend so much time in Thailand? What’s different about you from your average photographer that just comes and goes?
K2: It takes a while to understand the culture of Muay Thai – four years on and I’m still learning. The different regions also vary culturally. There are many organizations, different point systems, different types of venues, from markets to big stadiums, and variants in Muay Thai styles and rules.
I have seen “professional” photographers come and go in my time here. They often come along with a preconceived idea of what Muay Thai is about. They don’t do much research as they are fixated on documenting a story that sells. The majority will focus on young fighters and imply that they are being abused in order to sell their stories to magazines, newspapers and galleries. They are usually welcomed with open arms only to deceive their hosts and return home with a story that generates money and publicity. I have refused to cooperate with such photographers.
There are highly credible sports photographers who are big fans of Muay Thai, such as Rob Cox and Bobby Jirakon, who have been photographing at the big stadiums for many years, and I have had the pleasure of working alongside them.
MTG: Talk about All Star Fight (Buakaw) and the big stadiums. What is different? What is the same?
K2: All Star Fight, Thai Fight, Max Muay Thai, and Muay Thai Angels, among other new breeds of organizations, aim to glamorize Muay Thai and make it more exciting and entertaining for the viewer. The kind of entertainment being offered leans more towards Western boxing and WWE wrestling.
This new breed is rapidly gaining popularity among Thais and Westerners alike. It’s creating celebrities out of fighters, such as Buakaw Banchamek and Saenchai, who were great fighters before their fame, but have now become household names. It also pays quite well in comparison to more traditional venues. In many ways, it’s good for the industry and it popularizes Muay Thai and attracts viewers who would otherwise not watch.
I prefer watching the age-old, traditional Muay Thai seen at the Lumpinee, Rajadamnern, Channel 7 and Omnoi stadiums in Bangkok. There is no rock music, nor flashing lights, and the fighting is often more tactical. In my opinion, rock music and flashing lights belong in bars and concert halls, not in Muay Thai venues, as there is no need for extra sensory stimulation.
MTG: How does Muay Thai change people? What have you seen that’s remarkable?
K2: I have witnessed many of the positives of Muay Thai in individuals – way too many to list here. The changes vary depending on background and environment. In Isaan, for example, kids have not been brought up with much hope in life, [so] they can easily end up as alcoholics or drug addicts. What Muay Thai does in this region is offer hope and a purpose as well as physical fitness.
I sense that those experienced in Muay Thai tend to have an ease about them. It’s as if they know they are warriors on the inside and have nothing to prove. On top of that, they are fit, sticking to strict diets which can only be good for mental and physical health.
I have photographed two tournaments for IFMA (International Federation of Muay Thai) where hundreds of fighters from all over the world attended, including [those from] countries with political disputes. The only thing I witnessed is humility, respect and kindness among the competitors. I don’t think rotten apples could last at credible gyms, as non-violence is a key to progression in the sport.
MTG: You have a sizable following on Instagram. How has that impacted your documentation?
K2: I was of two minds as to whether to start an Instagram for documentation. On the plus side, Instagram has opened a lot of doors for me, as many industry insiders follow me and fighters enjoy seeing their photos up… On the other hand, it can be good to keep projects quiet and reveal [them] to the public once complete.
MTG: How do your photos benefit the Thai community?
K2: The answer to this is simple:
Thais within the industry have opened their doors to me, fed me, driven me for hours, given me full access in stadiums, invited me to sleep in their homes… Doing a photo documentation, whether it’s in book form or for galleries, has a negligible impact on the industry and is of virtually zero benefit to the fighters. Therefore, I look for other ways to try to give back to a group of people who have very little in the way of financial security.
My documentation is not about me and my camera – it’s a collective body of work between myself and the community.