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Adam Smith

Fight Journal

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There is a moment before the fight when the rhythmic sound of warm-up punches and nervous chatter dissolves into a quiet stillness.

This moment only lasts a second or two. No one in the room says anything. There is nothing else to say.

Everyone knows what is about to happen. Months of intense training, sacrifice, pain, and fear will explode in a fury of disciplined aggression: A beautifully brutal storm of ugliness and heart.

They know that when it is over, the two fighters will stand in the cage, naked in their victory or their defeat. Each knowing the implication of the outcome: that had it not been for the rules, an instrument of mercy that stopped the fight, one could have killed the other.

This is Mixed Martial Arts.

Often referred to as cage fighting, it is one of the fastest growing sports in North America.

“Fight Journal”, shot over the last 12 months, profiles a group of professional and amateur fighters from the Pacific Northwest.



I am a freelance documentary photographer based in Seattle, Washington. I am primarily interested in using documentary photography to create anthropological records that show how people live today. Clients include Cole & Weber United, Tree Top Inc., Capella, Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, and Book-It Repertory Theatre.

I am also working on several long term documentary and fine art personal projects, of which Fight Journal is one.


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Adam Smith


Editor’s note:

Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

39 thoughts on “adam smith – fight journal”

  1. That opening shot! wow, definitely some strong portraits in that essay (I like the last image too). The second image, with the Muhammad Ali photo definitely raises questions.. on one hand the image shows the commitment of fighting, a sort of revelry by your subject.. the framing is aesthetically pleasing too.. but on the other hand it is a photograph of somebody else’s famous photograph. I’d be curious to hear thoughts on this image. The scenes from the audience, masked by cages, also give a strong sense of atmosphere from the audience’s perspective but I’m left searching for the emotions of the fighters while they’re in the cage. Shot 13 comes closest to this for me. There is something about being inside the ring that completely changes the feel of the photograph. Overall a cool essay.

  2. Adam,
    Liked the series, overall, but, in truth, I was left a little under-whelmed
    based on what I expected after seeing the lead image.
    I kinda expected to see a series of nasty, Quentin Tarantino type images where you almost
    have to brace yourself for what’s coming next but was delivered some excellent, but G-rated
    ESPN doc pictures.
    Don’t get me wrong, I liked almost all of the set (with the exception of the Ali pic) but
    my issue was more with the tone that was set with the lead pic.

  3. At least it was in color! Competent photography, but didn’t draw me into the story. There is just too much missing here. Perhaps a beginning, but needs much more.

  4. Adam,the subject matter is barbaric and senseless. Given all the suffering in the world I, personally, don’t want to see violence that is avoidable. Enough! I looked at the photographs, briefly. The most disturbing one was of the fighter being interviewed for television. Giving a sense of normality to the subject is disturbing, surreal! It makes me apprehensive as to the ultimate fate of the human race. If that was the object of the essay, it worked. If not the object, what was? The thrill of the violence?

    If you continue with this work, Adam, I’d urge you to follow your subjects out of the cage and into their homes and lives. Then perhaps we we can see what drives people to do this to each other.


  5. Adam, your essay caused me to contemplate what it is about us humans that causes us to take the worst, base, most brutal part of our nature and turn it into entertainment, with #12 going along as the prize. I think you did pretty good a communicating some hard and ugly truths.

    I am still trying to decide what I think of your photo of the Ali photo. On one hand, it feels like an easy shot to bring the greatness of someone else’s work into your own – but on the other, it is truly thought provoking. It presents an interesting dichotomy of what boxing was in the arena that Ali fought in and what it has evolved to in Mixed Martial Arts. My first thought is that Ali fought with a kind of style, grace and class that these guys that you focus on will never know and yet, the end goal, to totally destroy your opponent is the same.

    As for that shot of the fighter being interviewed for television, all smiles, happy, clean, honored… it brings the essay home. It really tells us who we are as a species, and causes one to wonder why, after all these millions of years of evolution, this is as far as we have gotten.

  6. Excellent. Some very good photos in the series and yes, the television interview shot nails it. To me, it nearly worked on the level of a story of the combatants but I think there could be more to it so we get to know them better by seeing their lives outside of the ring — maybe just a shot or two so we have a glimpse of their motivation beyond the thrill of competition and proving themselves in the ring. What is it from their day-to-day lives that they bring or escape from in those minutes in the ring…

  7. Adam.

    I found your words more interesting than your images. Poetic. Your images I found disturbing. Maybe because last night, I happened to watch “Thriller in Manila”, the last horrific battle between Frazer and Ali that was so violent on the fighters, it needed to be stopped in the 14th round by the smarter Frazer team. This may sound a bit hypocritical of me in that I continued to watch even though I thought to turn it off, makes me think, realize, there will always be a market for this type of brutality.
    Once again allowing physical violence to speak louder than words.

  8. Adam, an excellent essay. You maintained the nervousness of the fighters – and me – throughout the series. I see this as a parable of how tough it is to climb out of one’s station in life, the costs that are demanded, the risks involved, and the sense of gamesmanship in the face of equal failure. Thus the Ali shot. Much is required to become “The Great One” – look at what it cost him…

    For those of us who may sniff at the barbarism lying just underneath your photos, which are tastefully presented, it should be considered what it takes to climb out of an unsatisfying position in our society. These men aren’t in the sport for the fun of it; look at the fear on their faces.

    The penultimate shot is what makes the essay for me, and I wished maybe it was the last shot. A cage in the middle of what seems to be a high school football stadium, or maybe an outdoor auction arena, looking like a modern day Baptist Revival tent. The ramp, blindingly illuminated by the spots, is the path to the fighters’ salvation. Which for me, was the point of the essay.

    Congratulations – an excellent story.

  9. Congratulations Adam for being published on Burn.

    I don’t want to sound harsh, but to me the essay didn’t seem in-depth enough. I feel that it is a bit “once-over -lightly” as if it had been shot over a couple of nights. It didn’t really tell me anything about the fighter, their situation, life etc.

    Even the fight images weren’t any different to what I could see in a fight mag or paper. I’d love to see you go further with the story as it has great potential.

  10. Personally, I liked the Ali photo. The way it’s framed on a blank wall with no other photographs implies that this is the only decorative work in a fighter’s home or gym. It’s a symbol of respect to a great fellow fighter, one who made it to the top in the profession, and inspires any fighter who looks at it. I think it’s important, it shows a sense of community among the athletes and contributes to a story of the men after training or working out, being able to see the lone framed image in the hall.

    I liked number 4 because it seemed to go into the life of the fighter, which I think is more intriguing than actually being in the ring. Great stuff thought! I really enjoyed it.

  11. “Boxing is the toughest and loneliest sport in the world.”-Frank Bruno

    I guess i’ll be the odd man out and say that I really liked Adam’s essay, for a number or reasons. Though, I have to confess that I’ve seen this essay, in it’s much longer and wider-ranging incarnation. I’ve also had the liberty of seeing this essay flesh’d-out, with more images, more venues and more ‘themes’ than the current essay suggests. In this sense, I guess I understand why people might think the essay is ‘thin’….can i be so bold as to suggest to viewers that there is depth and ideas in this body of work, there is ‘content’ richer than the simple ‘shoot the ultimate fighters’, that in it’s present incarnation, these 17 pictures suggest (at least to me) a different arrangement and a different conceptual approach to this story….i’ll see if i can flesh that out….

    To begin with, i LOVE that Adam has totally subverted our ‘expectations’ of this kind of stories: he does this with a (forgive me) one-two punch. The very first picture in the essay completely removes our natural hope for the brutality of the narrative: rather than ending the essay with an image of the boxer wounded, pummeled, wearied and bleeding (a natural tendency for almost every essay i’ve ever seen on boxing, regardless of geography), think Rocky, Adam subverts this by beginning the essay with the ‘ending.’ The opening image is not only a strong portrait, but by beginning the essay with it, he begs the question “where to go with an essay on boxing once you begin with the result?”….he follows this up with the homage to the history of the sport and to the history of photography: the shot of Ali standing over Liston, taunting him to get up, is one of the most famous pictures in sports, and certainly one of the photographs of boxing that most people can recall….leifer’s image was in color if memory is right, so i dont know if that picture is a reproduction or copy, but it (to me) begins to call in what lay at the heart of this essay, this shortened form, which is:


    Adam has an exceptional eye for the power of silence in an image and particularly how that plays out within the frame. but more importantly, to me, this essay is about the silence and the often painful solitary position of most of the subjects, including in the cage. for me, the essay isn’t at all a glorification of the combat of these men, nor exploration of the madness of the crowd’s, the blood rage and madness that adrenalizes this combat, but about how far away, how alone, these men are, more tattered than battered, the incredible drive that seems at first to vindicate the need for the bruising, and yet, through the sequence, we (at least I) feel bereft….the marching away of the boxer at the end with the swollen, verdant eyes, a pale palimpsest of his, for a time, self…..and his way, not hung with victory or accolades but with weight and uncertaintly: compare the intensity and ‘strength’ in the first boxer’s face (1st pic) and the exhaustion and rejection of the final image….in a sense, to me, the essay suggests that even through all the training and what appears to be gladitorial splendor, what ends is something much more sad and simple and honest:

    a body broken and swollen, a face that understands, or seems to suggest, the madness and futility…and how that truth is so much more real that the ‘heroic’ truth of Ali standing over a fallen Liston…just a picture on a wall, when the real truth is the wearing and wasting away of these bodies and all that they’d been convinced they could have done, should have done…..

    the lonelinest moment is that when we can reconcile ourselves with out illusions: the swollen blackened eyes…..

    Adam: my only question would be: why the shortened version….i think in this version, it’s stream lined to suggest the contrast between the first man and the final man, and in this sense, it works for me….but, for viewers, maybe some of the more solitary images, the images away from the ring: more training, the sitting in bleachers, the riding in the cars, with less attention to the ring action, may help to give the viewer the additional ‘depth’ that people seem to remember….

    remember vink’s essay on Kun Khmer boxing….i know John has done a number of boxing essays but this is one of my favorite on boxing, period…because of how John uses silence…and the framing building toward the action at the end……..how little time is spent on the ring, until we get just enough that it erupts the silence of what we’d seen before:


    Adam, big congrats because i know how hard you’ve worked on this essay and for how long….you have a wonderful eye for composition and especially with the mid-range shots, deeply cinematic and filled with all kinds of silence around the framing which both isolates and allows us to feel the sense of isolation…whether it’s the boxers surrounded by black or that outdoor cage surrounded by blue light and field and twilight……

    so happy to see this at Burn and whether it’s the short version or a longer version, i think you’ve given us a strongly worked story of the wearing sense under those phosphorous lights…

    big hug

  12. Adam, I didn’t enjoy the subject matter at all.. for the same reasons as many have stated before me. It’s pointless brutality and a tragic, stupid waste. There are some great images there though – some really good photography.

    I’d like to make some suggestions too – purely my opinion on what is here..in the spirit of respectful constructive critique.

    Some of these images seemed to me to convey a kind of admiration of these fighters – and other images highlight the silliness of it all. It feels like because you are torn between the two ways of seeing it, you have had difficulty commiting yourself and fully fleshing out your story. The end result feels a little shallower than promised in the text.

    I think it would benefit from a lot more “behind the scenes” images. I’d like to see one or two fighters or a small group covered in more depth – tell their story; who are their families? Where are they from? Why do they do it?

  13. Adam,
    I think you have an amazing capacity in story telling. Each photo fits perfectly in the flow of your tale, as they are frozen frames from a movie.
    Very well done!

  14. BOB…

    gotta disagree with you on this one…i too have see Adam’s essay in its entirety…i sure wish i knew what you were talking about when you say “its wider ranging incarnation” as if this was too tight an edit…please link us immediately your version..others may agree….

  15. The essay is entitled Fight Journal, and that’s what it’s about: there is a broad spectrum of emotions in the photos ranging from fear to aggression to joy. Well done!
    Maybe the three last photos could also be shown in other order (e.g. #17/15/16), but that’s only my 2 cents. I think the essay would make even more impression if the photos were printed side by side instead of being shown in a slideshow.

  16. Bob — You asked why the shortened version.

    This is an edit of over 60 potential photographs. I have, at one time or another, shared all of these with you. And you are right, several of these photographs show life outside the ring, the downtime, the “other” side of the fighters, etc…

    I think that you might be the only person that has seen those photographs. Several of the ones you are referencing were not submitted as part of this essay.

    And here is why: At this point, I am simply more interested in conveying a mood, the feeling of what it could be like to compete on the most primal of levels. What it feels like to choose to confront base fears each day, to embrace the terrifying contradictions manifest in humans. What it feels like in the moments before you step into the ring.

    I see this as an introduction. I am fully aware that there is a bigger story to be told. I hope to tell it. All in good time.

    Bob, Thank you so much for taking a thoughtful interest in the work, discussing it with me, helping me think about my work in different ways, and letting me bounce ideas off you.

    I really really appreciate it.

    Thanks to everyone for your comments. Both positive and negative, they are providing me with lots of good food for thought.



  17. Adam, Congratulations on being published on Burn. This is essay is strong and powerful in it’s imagery and composition, and demonstrates your excellent technique. Many of the images are difficult to look at. Myself personally am not drawn to the subject matter but it is important to document this huge cultural phenomena. It raises many questions, including your intent to document or to bring something else out of this. As a longer term project it would be really interesting to get behind the scenes and into these individuals lives. Great work, keep it going.

    All the best,


  18. Hey Adam. You’ve got an interesting eye. Would love to get coffee sometime. Ping me.

    Funny, I thought about this subject as a potential project. Had no idea it was actually going on in the Pac NW though. Problem is I just don’t think I could subject myself to this energy being where I’m at in my life right now. I kind of hit that wall with the war re-enactors project I was doing.

    The Ali photo doesn’t do it for me as it stands, though photographically it fits nicely into some of your other work. If it had more context around it (would work much better for me in between 7 and 8) I think it wouldn’t feel so out of place.

    Anyway, would love to see what else you have and any editing help, if you so desire, is yours.

    Take care,


  19. DAVID :)))…i understand and sorry for confusion, i was writing on the fly (to pick up D)……i meant that i had seen a large number of pics from this series, not that there was a longer edit, per se, but working stuff…i do like the short edit here as it, to me, gives a very succinct punch (sorry for the pun) to the audience: it captures the silence and the ‘isolation’ (for me) of the sport)…and i think some of the other pics i saw carry the ‘story’ away from the ring, that’s what i suggested, because i was lucky by having seen wider…at that’s what people seem to want, more about who these men are and what drives them…which i agree with…that’s why i asked adam about a wider edit :)))…but, still it works for me as is :))…like 1 poem in a suite of poems about, say, boxing :))

    Adam: :)))…my pleasure, i do really really like this edit :))…i just wanted to hear you talk about how you came to make the cut to 17 and go with an emphasis on the ring, the preparation and the moments in the ring…anyway, i think your story telling and the way you conceptualize stories is wonderful, intelligent and thoughtful and you sure know how to make a pic…especially like all the ‘negative’ space :)))….my pleasure to be a support…that’s why were’ all here for….so happy and proud of you



  20. BOB…

    well perhaps you did see some pictures i did not see…Adam’s submission to me was i think around 50 pictures..i do remember some pictures away from the ring, a fighter at home i think, but were simply not strong pictures imo of a fighter at home…a gratuitous picture of a fighter at home just did not seem right to me, nor was it keeping with Adam’s other photographs…and the final edit here was totally approved clearly by Adam as he had asked for my serious edit…if a photographer asks me to do a serious edit, i take it seriously…i do edit just a wee bit loose here on Burn…why?? because i like to give the readers a little something to do…most of the critiques are right on….most of the best pictures are mentioned by the readers here and also most of the worst…when we do our print issue, you will really know totally what i think…and thanks for the frank discussion…what Burn is all about..

    cheers, david

  21. Nice work Adam!

    I can feel and hear the energy of the crowd, the cheering, the sweat, the sound of the ref, ‘ding ding ding Round 2’! Your images suck me right into the action, much like a good movie (and for someone who has zero interest in the sport, this says a lot).

    Congrats mon ami! Great to see your stuff on Burn:)

    If you screw things up in tennis, it’s 15-love. If you screw up in boxing, it’s your ass.

    – Randall “Tex” Cobb

  22. David: :)…totally understand, and totally understand the ‘tough’ edit…and i do like alot this 17-pic essay, and i was surprised, actually, that so many people didnt, or seemed to react negatively (too short, too much boxing, the content?), which i didnt totally get….that’s why i mentioned both the longer sequence and John vink’s work: to offer to the readership the idea that THIS essay was not only about ‘boxing’ but something else :))…anyway, i totally know and support that part of the way you show work here and the edits (if asked by authors) is to make viewers think/work :)))))….that to me is really the great value of Burn :))….anyway, i think we’re on the same page and i really loved seeing this here :))

    John: i thought of Poids MOuche, but then i thought, mentioning the book might be too intimidating, cause it’s an extraordinary book, a book of haiku really….and that last flyweight ‘boxer’ at the end is the perfect ending..:))….but yea, that’s what I was trying to suggest :)

  23. I’m confused why some people are offended by the brutality and violence in these images. How can we see what is in our nature if we don’t want to look? I personally didn’t see this as a glorification of the sport, but more a repudiation. But that’s how I see it, even if Adam has a different view. #14 is the clincher for me, just a guy beating on another guy lying on his back, reduced to a childish state (but with deadly force), for what? I love the comment about the brightly lit ring appearing like a revival meeting.

  24. congrats adam, it’s awesome to see this on burn :)
    this is a great story and it shows what it takes to get to the top… some of the images are very powerful… keep the project going…

  25. Hi,

    Its been quite some time since I posted on burn – so here goes!

    This sort of “sport” isn’t really my thing at all. Yet, I like Adams essey for the fact that it doesn’t rely at all on gratuitous gore shots. Yes we get a sense of the brutality of the fights: the way in which, (shots 11 & 14) one of the fighters is seemingly out for the count, while his opponent is ready to issue the final finishing blow – no mercy. But, we also see the extravaganza that is the event; the pride and the vanity of the fighters, not to mention their will to drive themselves in readiness for such acts of brutality. I wonder if the bible the fighter reads is for solace or inspiration?

    I think this essay works because it made me ask questions about what I was looking at. I find that I admire the fighters for their dedication, but not for what they do. How can any society honestly condone such violence as entertainment? When it does, is it any wonder that the society is so replete with violence itself? I know that this is a story about the fighters, but I am really interested in the audience too. What sort of people watch this? Is at an all male audience as the eye candy in shot 12 suggests? Seeing something of this would, for me, be very interesting.

    My only doubt come not from the pictures, but from adams words. I know that this is a tight edit, but to be anthropological this needs to be far wider in scope. What are the fighters backgrounds? Is there any commonality there? How does this sport fit into wider society? Who make up the crowds and the viewers? What does this say about the “in group”, but also what universal can be applied to the rest of us?


  26. Adam,
    Congrats on being published in Burn Magazine. I know how much time and energy you have invested in this project and I am glad to see it paying off. There is an intriguing spread of comments here in regards to your essay. Some people have enjoyed it, some have turned away in distaste, but many people have taken the time to tell you what they think of it, which I believe is the sign that you did the job you set out to do. Your photographs capture a world that the majority of the population (and I suspect all of your viewers here) will never know or partake in. It opens people’s eyes to something they know nothing about; something they can’t relate to, understand, or even hope to feel. For me, having been next to you as you learned about and studied this “sport”, and also having been on the other end of the camera, with you photographing my battered face and scarred fists covered in another man’s blood for reasons that no one but me will ever understand, I commend you on capturing the emotions, the isolation, the brotherhood, and the immense energy of this hobby, this sport, and this life. Cheers and best of luck in your future work. I am excited to see where you take this project and your future projects.

    Take care-

  27. Veri nice work, Adam! Love the atmosphere!
    Can you tell me what camera do you use and what are the lenses you most often work with?
    Much appreciated!

  28. Adam Smith – well done on this fine publication.

    Some nice photography here. My only criticism would be in the portrayal of the subject matter – I wonder that it doesn’t accurately portray the brutality of the actual ‘sport’. Perhaps it is the edit from what is the larger project described by DAH and Bob Black, but for me it just falls a little short imho of portraying MMA which is brutal in all its poetic choreography. All that being said the photography is good. Enough said.

    Congrats and well done,

  29. Andrei — I used a Nikon D80 / Tamaron 17-55 and a Nikon d700 with 35mm1.8

    All — Thank you so much for your comments and insights. I’m very excited to continue the project and take it to the next level.


  30. Very good photography of an interesting subject matter. Part of the challenge with regard to the subject matter is going beyond action sports photography and I think you are succeeding in this respect. Another challenge, in my view, is portraying MMA as something which is not simply brutal. Although MMA certainly has a very brutal side, it is also, as you submit, “disciplined.”

    It is probably easy for the casual observer to dismiss MMA as little more than brutal, but with a little bit more study of the subject matter at hand it becomes clear not only that comprehesive technical skills are key for success in this area but also that a considerable amount of respect exists between the fighters. My suggestion would be to focus a bit more on conveying this side in the future.

  31. Nice work Adam.

    From a purely aesthetic point of view the story was very successful. I really enjoyed the visual beauty of many of the images. I’m thinking particularly of numbers 1, 3 and 17. This clean look may add to the sense of thinness others have added to the critique.

    Regarding the story aspect, I am a bit confused. Overall I think the story is about MMA fighters as a whole, but one particular person makes several appearances throughout. I feel the project may be more successful if you focused your attention on a single subject and really develop that person’s story. If you want to encompass the sport as a whole, I think we need to see more faces.

    All in all a good story and a great start. I hope to see more from this project.

  32. Pingback: Chris & Jessica – ADAM SMITH. BLOG.

  33. Adam…Picked up a copy of Elle Men here in China today, as I have an image and story in there this month. Was flicking through the magazine and noticed your story was in there too, with the credit Adam Smith/Burn! Nice job. If you haven’t seen it, let me know and I could scan and send. Best, Sean

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