Photographer Sandra Hoyn was on vacation in Thailand in 2011 when she happened upon a Muay Thai competition near Bangkok. Known as “the art of eight limbs” where almost everything on the body is used including elbows, knees, and fists, Muay Thai is a full-contact sport and one that is considered extremely difficult. Professional fighters often deal with broken bones and concussions.
What shocked Hoyn the most wasn’t the sport as much as the competitors: Children as young as 6 years old were in the ring. She immediately contacted the coaches and children to photograph the fights for a series she titled “Die Kampfkinder,” or “Fighting Kids.”
Although at first Hoyn found it difficult to work on the project because of language barriers, she eventually was able to spend four weeks accompanying the children at home, during training sessions, and during competitions.
Hoyn studied photography at the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg, Germany, and began developing her craft roughly 10 years ago while traveling. She said she tries to get close to the local culture and has created many series around Southeast Asia, including one about human trafficking and another about a young punk living in Burma.
“I feel the urgency to show what is happening in the world, in which circumstances people are living,” she wrote via email. “Sometimes it is difficult to keep the journalistic difference. With many protagonists of my stories, I develop a friendship, so on one side it is good for the story, while on the other hand it’s hard to stay neutral and remind myself I’m not just a friend, I’m also a photojournalist.”
Although Hoyn said many people were shocked by her images of children fighting, she said in Thailand it isn’t really unusual, and it is common to see young children training, often as a way to escape poverty.
Although her photographs make it seem like a very rough sport for the children, Hoyn wrote that she didn’t see many of them seriously hurt since they aren’t as powerful as adults. “Few of these children boxers will be rewarded with fame, glory, or money,” Hoyn wrote, noting that although money bets are illegal in Thailand, they don’t seem to be enforced.
“The most shocking thing for me was to see the pressure on these children. They are the instrument for the parents to earn money, and they have to win the fight because the parents bet a lot of money on them. A lot of people lose all their money in one night,” she said.