There are not too many MMA photo books, and the few that are out there are typically done in conjunction with the UFC and are photos people on the internet already have access to. The only difference is now they are printed on high-quality instead of being stuck behind an LCD screen. The art books with MMA are even more difficult to find, and “Octagon” might be one of the few we have that meets those standards, hiding inside a coffee table book design. “Paying Your Dues”, shot and written by John C. Zielinski, is an art book at heart, which is an odd niche in MMA, but a much needed one if we are going to get this sport the recognition it deserves and a greater understanding of what it is and what it isn’t.
There are not many references in MMA to judge this work against, making it a unique experience. But does unique mean that it’s good? After all, this is a self-published book and not one done through a publisher. And why would a publisher take a chance on something as risky as this project? Well, I got myself a copy of the book and decided to answer these questions for myself and for you, and let you readers know if this is worth spending your hard-earned cash on, or if it’s something you should bypass.
The author and photographer, John C. Zielinski, has been a member of the filmmaking industry for almost 20 years, working on documentaries, commercials, and feature films. His work has taken him across the country and around the world. Early in 2010, John attended a “Cage of Chaos” amateur MMA show in the Greater Pittsburgh/ East Ohio region. “Cage of Chaos”, which is run by Dave Klick, holds their shows in Pennsylvania instead of Ohio due to the ammy rules being closer to pro rules in the state, giving new fighters a better understanding of fighting in a NHB environment, but not hurting their pro record. As fate would have it, John found himself the impromptu photog for the event, and enjoyed the experience so much that he wanted to document this fledgling company in “Paying Your Dues” and show what goes on behind the scenes at an MMA show.
We get the fighters warming up, hearing the pre-fight rules, lingering backstage before they fight, finally getting in the cage to battle, and the aftermath, whether it’s sweet victory or bitter defeat. The book is a mix of color and black and white photos of all of these environments, and even a few classic portraits in the back of the book. The photos speak for themselves, as a good photo is worth a thousand words (or something like that). We get a sense of urgency and anxiety as a fighter waits to make his entrance, and wild panic as that same fighter is pounded on from off his back by his opponent. These pictures capture raw emotion that many of us are not used to seeing, as we typically only see fight photos from one or two angles, AKA the spot the company puts their photogs in, and the spots that they can not move from. John has free range here over the arena, and guides us through the entire production, start to finish, masterfully weaving a story about a tiny company in a dank venue that pulls off some spectacular fights.
One thing you will notice is the often blurred and grainy look to many of the action photos. Being in similar positions before with many events that I have photographed, I can feel John’s pain. Young MMA promotions can barely afford to pay their fighters, let alone worry about production value, so often times you are forced to work with what you have, which mean pushing the ISO on your camera to its limit as well as the aperture just to get the closest you can to not having one giant blur. “I wanted a different style for the photos, one that would help tell the stories that unfold during the event,” John said about the look of his shots, “I wasn’t interested in just getting photos that crisply documented action. I wanted to bring the viewer into the emotions and energy of the night.” John accomplishes that. Plain and simple, if you want shots of punch-faces, jump to Tracy Lee or Esther Lin’s sites. For a more photo-journalistic approach that is about picking a shot rather than firing off a bunch at once hoping for that one money shot, this book gives you that gritty look that elevates it to a different level.
My favorite section in the book is the “Aftermath”, that deals with what happens to the fighters after the match is done. All the drama culminates here, as we see some men standing tall and others broken down, mentally and physically. The story is in these shots more than anything else, the end of a long journey, and a fitting way to wrap this book up. I can not think of any complaints here, other than just warning you about the graininess of some shots, but that’s to be expected in this kind of environment and does not detract from the photos. It adds more weight to their story and if you have ever been to a local fight, should remind you of your hometown promotion (unless you live in Vegas, you spoiled bastard!).
The book is independently published through Blurb.com. The softcover version sells for about $36 and the hardcover sells for about $50 for this 78 page book. Normally, I would say that’s an absurdly hefty price for a book like this, but it does go to a good cause. All proceeds will be donated to University of Maryland Medical Center Living Donor Follow-Up Clinic Fund. The author chose this charity because this clinic took care of a family member of his that donated a kidney. So, think of it like a PBS pledge drive for MMA – sure, you can buy that same Beatles CD for a third of the cost in a store, but you are supporting local MMA and telling retailers that you want more MMA in any way you can get it. You can check out a preview of the book at the link above, and also order a copy of this book that I definitely recommend.