Fighting for a Pittance: How Thai Children Earn Money for Their Parents Doing Muay Thai
German photographer, lives in Hamburg. Studied photography at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. Member of laif photo agency since 2007. Winner of World Press Photo, Magnum Photography Awards, Prix de la Photographie Paris, LensCulture Portrait Awards, MIFA, and many other photography awards.
— I was on vacation in Thailand and by chance watched a Muay Thai competition in an arena near Bangkok: I saw 6 year old boys fighting surrounded by a crowd of men, who drink whiskey, shout and bet for money. I saw how much pressure was on the children during and after the fight, if they had lost and their parents were angry because of the money. That’s why I decided to make a photo-documentary about it. I didn’t want to explain what is Muay Thai with my photos, I wanted to show the pressure on the children.
I tried to establish contacts with the coaches and children, which was difficult at first, because only some spoke English. They were open to my project. For four weeks I accompanied the children to their homes, during the training and the competitions. Getting permission and working with them was not difficult, they were very friendly and open to me after I showed and gave them some photographs, which they liked. With many protagonists of my stories I develop a friendship.
A lot of people just see black or white. Some defend Muay Thai as a cultural institution, others are shocked when they see a child fighting. In Thailand, child fights are not unusual. It is common for children to start boxing from the age of 6 or 7. Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand and they dream about being famous one day. Most children belong to poor families. They hope that Thai boxing is a way out of poverty. For that reason parents send their children to professional training at a very early age.
I developed positive and negative feelings about the practice. It is not all bad when children practice Muay Thai. And it is not all fine just because it is an old tradition and the national sport. You have to see a story from all sides. I don’t criticize Muay Thai as a sport. I am critical of how children are used as a tool to for the amusement of tourists and betting locals. How they are used by their parents as an instrument to get money.
Normally children have a lot of fun during the Muay Thai training and they are not forced by their parents to do that. But the competition-fights in the arenas are different than the training at home. I saw a trainer punish a boy with a stick one day before a Muay Thai competition. He was very angry with him, the boy was crying and wanted to stop with the training. The trainer hit him with a stick and forced him to go on.
Sometimes children are afraid of the competitions. They have to win the fight, because their parents bet a lot of money. Money bets are illegal in Thailand, but hardly anyone cares for that. The stakes are high, a lot of people lose all their money in just one night.
One time I saw a boy lose a boxing match and lay on the ground. His mother shouted at him very angrily. I asked her if she’s worried because her son is injured, but she was just annoyed that they had lost so much money because of him.