Female photographers capture combat sports’ personal (and bloody) moments – Los Angeles Times
Women aren’t only headlining more main events in combat sports these days. They’re also surrounding the cage and ring, turning in some of the finest photography in both mixed martial arts and boxing.
Esther Lin of MMAFighting.com and Showtime, Amanda Westcott and Stephanie Trapp of Showtime, and Liz Kreutz of Top Rank are constants at major bouts, producing work that’s disseminated worldwide.
Inglewood’s Lin, a UCLA Film and Television School product, is a dynamo considered by many of her peers as the premier mixed martial arts photographer.
“I feel like I bring empathy [to fighting],” Lin said. “There’s times I feel bad even as I’m taking the photograph. One of my mentors, he’ll be shooting a fight and tears are streaming down his face. Emotion is part of it, and I’ve always gotten wrapped up in that part of it.”
Lin brilliantly captured the decisive head kick by Saturday night’s UFC 208 main-event fighter Holly Holm on Ronda Rousey in 2015, but she also has a library of stunning memorable shots that have documented the sport’s rise from niche to mainstream.
“Her work ethic is just unbelievable. The effort, the heart and the passion she has … she’s relentless, so focused,” said MMAFighting.com writer Ariel Helwani.
Helwani placed his favorite MMA photo ever on the set of his Internet television show, “The MMA Hour.”
“Esther took a picture of Jason ‘Mayhem’ Miller when he defeated Kazushi Sakuraba in ‘Dream.’ Sakuraba is on the floor and Miller is standing over him, bowing and there’s a light in the top corner and it kind of looks like Sakuraba’s soul is going up … being in Japan, bowing … . To me it’s the best,” Helwani said.
Brooklyn’s Westcott said that while it may seem uncommon that she and other females are so gifted in documenting athletes participating in such viciousness and violence, it helps that they have had art or documentary-style schooling.
Kreutz explained, “I started in an entry elective black-and-white photo class at the University of Texas, and got all into shooting the Texas-Texas A&M football rivalry when my professor handed me a piece of paper and told me, ‘These are all the classes you need. You need to change your major to photography.’
“I didn’t know what an F-stop or what shutter speed was. But he told me, ‘Liz, you have a connection with people and telling stories. Most photographers are not people people.’ I always hung on to that. Storytelling is at the core of what we do.”
Kreutz, who’s served as the personal photographer of cyclist Lance Armstrong, was introduced by Armstrong to boxing promoter and Top Rank President Todd duBoef, who determined that her style was needed to complement the typical fight action.
“I brought something different. The behind-the-scenes moments might be thought of as simple, but I think they are so powerful and beautiful,” Kreutz said, recalling a November shot of a smiling Manny Pacquiao returning to the boxing ring, looking up at his fans in the Thomas and Mack Center just before his ring announcement.
“He missed boxing and he’s just this happy, fun-loving guy. Other dressing rooms are intense. You can feel the tension. And Manny has this smile on. It’s a whole different feeling that I just tried to capture. I loved that shot. That is Manny Pacquiao.
“I try to show who the athlete is as a person, not so much as only a fighter. Not everyone can be in Manny Pacquiao’s dressing room, or be there when he says, ‘Sit here, eat with us,’ I feel like this is such a gift to be granted this access, that’s what I want to share with everybody who can’t be there.”
Shooting the fights up close is the true test of a photographer’s grit.
Westcott said her lens was once splattered by a drop of flying blood during a bout and she intentionally kept it there to help enhance the images.
Lin wasn’t squeamish when she captured UFC straw-weight Paige VanZant’s badly bloodied face in a late 2015 loss to Rose Namajunas, but Anderson Silva’s broken leg in 2013 was bothersome — “it was limp, kind of dangling in the air,” she said — as was another incident:
“I was standing in the corner once and this guy threw his bloody swab and it slid down behind my glasses, right down my face, and I was like, ‘OK, yeah, that’s a little too much,’” Lin said.
Being so close to the fighters otherwise nets photography gold.
“I was pretty terrible when I started, I didn’t get any impact shots. It took me awhile to get my timing down,” said Lin, who religiously watches fights on television to better understand a fighter’s movements to help predict what they’ll do next. “You get that intuition.”
While boxing and UFC credentialing people want photographers to remain in their assigned positions, Lin says that’s also an opportunity for creativity, to operate in her own ninja style.
“On fight night, I wear all black, get dressed up, look like a reporter and walk around,” she said. “I like blend in, get a nice arena shot and different perspectives. I might not be allowed to move, but I do it anyway.”
She and Westcott, doing some freelance work for the Los Angeles Times, reunited at a Thursday UFC workout at famed Brooklyn boxing gym Gleason’s.
Both will probably shoot Saturday’s UFC 208 main event pitting Holm against Germaine De Randamie for the new women’s featherweight title. And either, or Trapp, will probably cover U.S. Olympic champion Claressa Shields’ March 10 main event on Showtime’s “ShoBox” card in Detroit.
“There should be a good, diverse group in every field, because when you have that, then you have good, diverse viewpoints,” Lin said. “The more women in combat sports, the more wholly the sport will be covered.”
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