The Journey of a Fight Photographer with Scott Hirano

Muay Thai Guy got the chance to sit down with Scott Hirano, a fight photographer currently based out of Hunting Beach, California. To many, he is regarded as one of the best in the business, able to capture those intense moments of combat while at the same time letting out the emotion in the sport. We asked him to pick his favourite photos from his nearly 10 year career. You might recognize Scott’s work from GLORY, Metamorphosis, and Invicta FC to name a few.

muay thai kid fighter wrapping hands issan thailand

Young Muay Thai gets his hands wrapped for his fight in Isaan, Thailand

Tell us a little bit of how you got started in fight photography?

Someone hired me to shoot a boxing + MMA event. Up until then, I’d shot soccer, which I did for a few years, dog portraits, which I did more of than I care to admit, and was at the time shooting commercial portraiture, providing brochure and website content for health insurance companies.

It was liberating shooting those first fights. I was in awe of the range of emotion I saw, while at the same time realized an empathy in me for what was going on, the ups and downs, the ecstatic moments and the despair. It was something I wanted to explore in myself, which initially had me viewing fight photography as an introspective endeavour.

Your job has allowed you to travel all over the world. What was your favourite place you got to travel?

Thailand for sure. I’ve been there four times now and imagine I’ll live there eventually. I’m attached to the texture of the place and the people are generally very kind. I’ve been all around the country, which has a ton of beautiful places to visit and now have friends in different parts.

My favourite place in Thailand has to be the Buriram province, which, besides being beautiful, is also the home of some dear friends of mine.

jiu jistu armbar metamoris

Marcus Buchecha gets Roger Gracie in a threatening armlock at Metamoris 1 in California

You shoot for jujitsu, boxing, Muay Thai, and MMA. Which sport do you find the most challenging to capture?

Hmm. I think they all have their challenges: Jiu Jitsu with its subtleties, most of which I don’t understand, a boxer’s untelegraphed punch, a Muay Thai fighter’s clinch, and MMA as an amalgam of all that. If I had to pick one, I’d say boxing, oddly enough. It’s the sport with the least movement on the list, but a boxer’s speed and ability to hide the tells of incoming punches has timing a photo pretty challenging.

What have been the most difficult environments to shoot in?

The most difficult situation I’ve ever shot in was in Thailand at a Thai Fight event that Buakaw headlined. With no exaggeration, there were around 100 photographers ringside. As I was in Buakaw’s locker room before his fight, so I had no spot ringside and resorted to shooting with one arm around a turnbuckle in the corner, the other on the camera, hanging off the canvas with one foot. I managed to get the shot below, which I felt super lucky to have gotten.

Buakaw muay thai ko punch

Buakaw lands a right hook at Thai Fight in Bangkok, Thailand

The most difficult environment I’ve ever shot in had to be in a small rural village in the Buriram province of Thailand, where fights are held outdoors, at night, under terribly dim lights. As the ring was in a field in the middle of a farming village, tons of bugs hovered around the lights dimming the lights even more— an absurd amount of bugs, actually: beetles, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, and other unidentified things. Bugs landed on the faces of the fighters as they fought and were stepped on constantly as they landed on the canvas. They flew onto all of us ringside as well.

And what has been the most unique experience for you to shoot in?

The most unique shooting experiences I’ve had are very different from each other. I was on the photography team for Showtime event that covered Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao. This set up had me assigned to the locker rooms of Mayweather, Pacquiao, and the rest of the card to shoot behind the scenes content, while being on the same team as Esther Lin, someone I have a very high regard for and someone I consider a good friend. It stands as the biggest money fight of all-time, with Mayweather earning over 100 million to fight and Pacquiao 80 million.

Shooting Muay Thai in rural Buriram, Thailand, in one of the poorest regions in the country has also been very unique for me. Seeing children fighting as adults do to earn wages for their families is sobering and something I’ve gone on to document annually.

Floyd Mayweather hugs his daughter as the locker room cleared for Mayweather’s walkout to face Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas, Nevada

Fighting is such an emotional sport. How do you be fair in your work to both the winners and losers?

Fights are super unpredictable, whether in Muay Thai or Jiu Jitsu or whatever. People get KO’ed in seconds, just as grappling submissions can end super quick. I try to shoot each fighter as soon as they’re visible, that is, the moment they’re on deck to make the walk to the ring or cage or mat, I try to start shooting. In this way, I’m maximizing coverage for each fighter so that no matter how fast a fight ends, I’ve still got content for each participant’s story. There’s tons of emotion to be recorded at fights and it just requires that you be present for it.

Has there ever been a moment or a particular fight where you felt too close to the action?

The closest I’ve ever felt to a fight would have to be when my friend Thanit Watthanaya fought in Los Angeles for a Muay Thai event I was working on several years ago. Coming from Thailand and living in Canada, Thanit was having a rough time financially, while trying to sustain a wife and daughter with fighting and maintenance work. His fight was a 5-round bout against Andy Howson, a well-known fighter from the UK. I was shooting from Thanit’s corner throughout the fight, so I was close to the corner activity between rounds.

Sort of storybook like, Thanit was down on points going into the last round of the fight and his corner, like out of a movie, told Thanit, “you have to knock him out.” Something like a minute into the 5th round Thanit hit Andy with an overhand right that wobbled enough to have the ref step in and stop the fight. I jumped into the ring to shoot and saw Thanit emotional and crying and I began to cry too, but continued shooting. I was really happy for his win and was touched by the emotion he showed.

Kazushi Sakuraba moments before facing Renzo Gracie in one of grappling's biggest rematches in Los Angeles, California

Kazushi Sakuraba moments before facing Renzo Gracie in one of grappling’s biggest rematches in Los Angeles, California

What do you try to achieve with your photos?

I’m not sure I’m so deliberate with what I shoot. I’m a regularly distracted and irresponsible individual, so to say I have a large goal in mind is difficult. I more am occupied with hoping nothing goes wrong, that things are in focus and lighting is in place— things like that. I do try to be present while shooting and sometimes, in that, a photo will reflect an amount of technique or empathy that I’ll feel lucky to have gotten.

When you are not working, what is your favourite thing to photograph?

When I’m not shooting for work, I enjoy shooting my family, places I’ve never been, with mywater housing in the water at the beach.

You can connect with Scott on Facebook or follow his work on Instagram.

Nieky Holzken makes his way to the ring at Glory 13 in Tokyo, Japan

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Sean Fagan
Sean "Muay Thai Guy" Fagan owns & operates the largest online Muay Thai community and the #1 training resource for nak muay of all levels.

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