I feel that people in this community are often misunderstood.
It may seem counterintuitive that fighting could bring people together. It certainly did to me until I saw the work of Aneesa Dawoojee and heard her speak about the people she photographs. We met earlier this year at a portfolio review hosted by FORMAT Festival in Derby. Her images portray a community of people who share a passion for a martial art called Muay Thai, also known as Thai Boxing. It shares with other eastern martial arts a deeply engrained philosophy and, as I was to learn, moral code. It is also perhaps the most ferocious of the martial arts, a no-holds-barred combat in which fists and elbows, knees and shins are all use against the opponent. The art of eight limbs.
I suppose I had always associated fighting with conflict, with disrespect, with divisiveness, be it the brutality of the battlefield or the burlesque of TV wrestling. But here, the shared discipline of Muay Thai is building trust, mutual respect, and a strong sense of community. And so it is that Aneesa Dawoojee’s photographs focus on the human being rather than the fighting machine. In her images and in the stories she builds around each subject, she captures the nuance of dignity and vulnerability, courage and uncertainty, the complexity borne of unpretentiousness. If these are warriors, their victories are ultimately not over each other but over contexts borne of capricious chance and circumstance.
What drew you to become a photographer?
As a child, I wanted to be an artist. But I understood it was hard to earn money that way, so I decided to study history and politics with a view to becoming a journalist. In the beginning, I didn’t realise how the choices I made would shape the way I think about the world and, later, the way I went about making photographs.
Becoming a photographer was an organic process. I was working for a homeless charity and shooting for their annual reports and publicity. But I didn’t like the way that young homeless people were being portrayed in order to get funding… making them appear without hope or dignity. That never sat well with me.
© Aneesa Dawoojee – untitled photographs 2021
How did your project about Muay Thai begin?
Being female in London comes with dangers. I was active in Muay Thai from my teens through to my thirties, not only for fitness and self-defence but as a way of feeling better about myself. It was a place where I was valued by peers, no one would laugh at you. And it is a contact sport which meant you could safely experience what it would be like if you really did need to protect yourself from attack.
What is Muay Thai?
While Muay Thai is a fierce sport that incorporates the clinch, fists, elbows, knees, shins – the whole body used as a weapon – it has deep cultural roots and rituals originating in Thailand and dating back to the Buddhist year of 1238 [c695 CE]. It is an excellent form of self-defence and brings an incredible level of fitness. But I have learnt over the years that it is also a very effective way of controlling rage and overcoming trauma. Everything in Muay Thai is extremely fast. You must remain completely focused on what you are doing, or you will get hurt. When training, you really have to surrender yourself to your environment. At the same time, there is a complete and utter trust in the people you train with that they will not do anything stupid to hurt you. And this builds strong relationships.
[Left] © Aneesa Dawoojee ‘Sonny’ 2020 from the series ‘A Sense of Belonging’
[Right] © Aneesa Dawoojee ‘Luke’ 2020 from the series ‘A Sense of Belonging’
What is it about this sports community in particular that attracted you to document the participants in detail?
I feel that people in this community are often misunderstood. Many have experienced trauma but, for people from a non-western background, counselling is not an option. The discipline, structure, guidance, and moral code of Muay Thai can help save a life from being ruined. Having come to know this community more intimately, I have seen how much people do to help others who are weaker, who are struggling, who are seen as the underdogs. In the right gym people can find a place of belonging and unity.
It might seem counterintuitive that fighting would bring people together; calm and focus them.
Fighters can be some of the calmest, quietest people you will ever meet. They have experienced a lot, learned a lot, and are trained to control their anger and pain. To those of us who know it well, it does not feel counterintuitive. It makes sense that fighters can control themselves better and pick their battles more wisely.
© Aneesa Dawoojee ‘Nesrine’ 2020 from the series ‘A Sense of Belonging’
To get a sense of the individuals involved in the sport, I’d like to talk about two people in particular: Nesrine and Liam.
For me, Nesrine is a key figure in this project. When we first met, we found that we share the same dreams of an inclusive society. What she has done for Muslim women is remarkable and inspiring. Her decision to wear hijab came later in her life and has significantly affected the way she is perceived. She is vocally active about her beliefs and has had to face up to the hostility of Islamophobia. Ten years ago, you’d never really see a female fighter in a hijab and to see small children in hijab fight was unheard of. Today, under the Nike banner, she is helping to script new opportunities for those kids. She is not only teaching children self-defence, but mutual understanding, unity, and female empowerment.
© Aneesa Dawoojee ‘Liam’ 2021 from the series ‘A Sense of Belonging’
Liam came from one of the biggest housing estates in Europe; south-London born of mixed Irish, Welsh, and Chinese heritage. His early years were not so easy. A latch-key kid from a broken home with few family ties. He loved living in south London and built a network of friends, all in their own way a bit broken, a bit disillusioned. When his father and stepmother moved to Wales, he stayed. Liam didn’t fight at school; he just kept his head down waiting to get through it. It was a rough environment that didn’t offer much in terms of hope or grades. Rather than let frustration get the better of him, when he left school, he started training in Muay Thai. You can’t get angry during a fight, instead you have to think and understand what is going on. The trainers were strict, and he and his friends learned respect fast. As Liam said: “There is always someone bigger, stronger and faster than you, you can’t be a hooligan so trust really matters”.
Having started his career as a shoe shiner in Leadenhall Market, Liam is now head of sales development for a systems integrator. He got there through hard graft and a relentless work ethic that he quickly learned in order to survive. But while hard work is one aspect of his character, what defines him today is the joy he gets voluntary football coaching with children on the weekends. Many of the people in these images give back directly to their community in one way or another. They know how hard it is to survive without proper guidance, mentoring, and support around them. It was Liam that introduced me to Sam Nankani, who in turn helped me connect with many of the people at SN Combat Academy [in Croydon] that also want to better the lives of others.
© Aneesa Dawoojee from the series ‘Overcoming: Breaking the Stereotype’
[Left] ‘Reon with Master Sam’ 2020; [Upper Right] ‘Reon and Master Sam’ 2021; [Lower Right] ‘untitled’ 2021
I was struck by the depth of your series documenting the relationship between the prize fighter Reon Wong and his trainer Sam Nankani.
Reon was still in prison when he first heard about the SN Combat Academy and going there after his release changed his life. Master Sam has rehabilitated many young men and given them new hope and a fresh start when no one else would. Reon and he have an incredible relationship, like father and son: close and trusting. You can see it in the image of Sam tenderly holding Reon immediately after a rare defeat; in the majority of images they are celebrating wins. Reon and Sam have different religions, but both have a really strong faith, which is another thing that connects them.
Muay Thai realigned Reon. Every Sunday he organises ‘Run with Re’, a community activity at Crystal Palace – which certainly shows his dedication as he has to get up early and run the day after each of his big fights. He is determined to be a strong parent and role model for his children.
© Aneesa Dawoojee ‘Reon’ 2020–21 from the series ‘Overcoming: Breaking the Stereotype’
I am interested in this series by the way you use different narrative strategies to build a more three-dimensional sense of Reon as a person?
One image cannot always tell a clear and accurate story. Balance and truthfulness are really important in image-making, and it frustrates me when I see certain people or communities demonised. I first met Reon several years ago and so much has changed over time. I want to show these different aspects of his personality, to see that progression.
Between starting and completing this work, did your methodology change?
Yes. When I started, I think I was trying to put too much of a professional gloss on things: choosing images where the hands curved artfully, or eyes stared down the barrel of the lens. But this was not really true or authentic to the subjects. So now I shoot a range of images that allow the sitter to move around naturally as we talk.
I have also learned that it is important that the person I am photographing is clear about why I am making the images and how they will be used. Trust is an essential part of it.
[Left] © Aneesa Dawoojee ‘Steve’ 2020 from the series ‘A Sense of Belonging’
[Right] © Aneesa Dawoojee ‘Robert’ 2020 from the series ‘A Sense of Belonging’
Do you show the sitter their portrait afterwards?
Almost always. I want them to see what it is I am doing and be part of the process. I also want to see how they respond as this helps me determine how I develop the series going forward. It’s rare that they are unhappy with the images. Mostly it’s surprise that they can look this way. These images can seem very different from the way they have previously seen themselves. My photographs often show their vulnerabilities, and it makes me happy that they feel good about this. Each person I photograph leads me to the next. I feel truly honoured to have so many people involved in this work and share it onwards. What I have come to realise is that so many of us want the same thing. That human need to be seen, heard, and represented is so important.
How do you present this work publicly?
Much has happened since you and I met at the start of the year. A local arts charity, Streatham Space Project, saw my images and immediately believed in the project. Together, we put in an application to Arts Council England for a grant to complete the work and create an exhibition to be presented in the heart of Streatham. Working with grassroots organisations we plan an accompanying series of workshops involving the sort of young people who are often hard to engage in community activities. The exhibition will be supported with a series of podcasts made with the fighters depicted in the work. South London Press have agreed to promote the exhibition and events, and we are getting a lot of interest from other publications and photographic institutions.
[Left] © Aneesa Dawoojee ‘Kerone’ 2020 from the series ‘A Sense of Belonging’
[Right] © Aneesa Dawoojee ‘Azaria’ 2020 from the series ‘A Sense of Belonging’
Next year, the work will feature in a solo exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society in Bristol. Meanwhile, I will continue to partner with grassroot charities and local schools so that young people who normally have no access to photography can see the work and become involved in activities that explore the underlying importance of community, trust, and mutual respect.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making your work?
When I started making this work life was hard for me and for many of those I photographed. I was experiencing racist reactions to my art and the subjects I photographed. By immersing myself in a community that did not think or behave that way gave me the warmth of understanding and a desire to do good by them all.
I have learnt to face up to uncomfortable issues and I have learnt the value of dialogue. As a result, I have discovered so much about my own fear of letting my guard down and trusting others. Some in this community have had a tough start in life, many have experienced pain in some shape or form. No matter our wealth and position, if you strip it all back we can be together, work together. Find safety and happiness together. Many voices coming together in unity hold far more power than a lone individual trying to be heard.
Aneesa Dawoojee was born in south London, England. She has a bachelor’s degree in history and politics from Essex University (1999), and a master’s degree in conflict resolution and mediation from Birkbeck, University of London (2006). An artist, conflict mediator, and school governor, she spent thirteen years working with children and teenagers suffering from a variety of complex social and mental-health challenges, before becoming a full-time photographer in 2013. She was made a Fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography in 2021, and a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in 2022.
Her work has been exhibited in the United Kingdom including the one-hundred-and-sixty-third International Photography Exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society, Bristol, in 2022. In 2021 she was named Southeast Social Documentary Photographer of the Year for an image of a Black Lives Matter protest. Her work features in ‘Portrait of Humanity volume 4’ (British Journal of Photography 2022). Aneesa Dawoojee is an ambassador for This Girl Can, a UK health-promotion initiative for girls and young women. She lives and works in south London.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.