Within five minutes of the opening round, Liam McGeary had done what so many thought impossible; he had won the Bellator MMA light-heavyweight tournament. Along with a giant novelty cheque for $100,000, the victory had earned Liam a shot at the organisation’s light-heavyweight champion, Emanuel Newton.
My name is John Liot, and I’m a photographer. I’ve been following Liam’s fighting career closely, from his professional combat origins in Jersey to performing in front of a television audience of over one million in the United States. I had wanted to travel to America to document his pursuit of becoming Bellator tournament champion, but submitted that it wasn’t the right time for me. I had made a promise to myself though that should Liam claim victory in the tournament final then I would be there, (wherever ‘there’ was) to document his attempt at the world title. A date hadn’t been set yet, but Liam informed me that after taking some time off he would be ready to go for his title shot in early 2015.
This was it for me, I’d entered a period where speaking figuratively about the future was no longer applicable; the future was here and I either made it what I said it’d be, or I’d be just another person with hot-air ambitions. Knowing that my student bank balance wasn’t facilitating any long-stay trips to America, I needed to source money another way, I needed to appeal to an audience. My subsequent foray into the world of crowd-funding was one of ups and downs, successes and regrets, self-doubt and a little bit of ego-inflation. In many ways, without the positive growth that crowd-funding had given my ‘brand’, I would’ve found the difficult parts of this project even more so. Because the truth is, this project wasn’t easy. I was in America for just under a month, shooting every day within the Arctic tundra that is New York City in February. Of course, I should preface what I want to talk about with how incredible this project was, what a life-affirming trip it was for me. I learnt so much about myself, my relationship with photography, my desire to explore the world, to create things for people, to be a ‘nice guy’.
The project, titled, ‘Liam McGeary: The Fight’, was devised to be a fly-on-the-wall style photo-documentary. I aspired to capture the build-up to a world title fight, to create memories of the intense training sessions, of the light-hearted in-between moments, all the drama, the elation and fallout of victory. Mostly, I wanted to do it for Liam. I had established my reasoning for shooting this project was like how a wedding photographer documents a wedding. It was photography for the sake of preserving memories, in the way that only the silent, still-moment medium can. To be alone with an image that means something to you, to have your brain explore and search for those memories and emotions attached. It’s quite a romantic view to have, I suppose. I feel like photography asks more from the viewer than other formats, but for those willing to put the effort in to digesting an image’s meanings and story, the pay-out is greater. I craved to do something special and definitive with my final year of University and this project had lined up perfectly.
Though I felt like my reasoning for wanting to take on this project was selfless, I didn’t want this project to look like something anyone present with a camera could shoot. It mattered to me to make it as much a ‘John Liot’ story about Liam than just a recounting of an event. Since my time at St. Lawrence primary school I’ve always had a strong association with telling stories and creative writing, and through my development at Falmouth University I feel like photojournalism has given me a format to continue telling stories. Obviously the juxtaposition between past and present is that my stories now don’t feature quite as many mythological beasts or references to the Simpsons.
What I wanted to show in my work were the elements of professional fighting that you rarely see within the glossy promotional videos of top-level shows. This was my first time, as well as Liam’s, doing anything like this, so a certain amount of space was afforded. I didn’t want to overstep my limits early on in the project and mess up the rest of my time. I also didn’t know how close I needed to get to tell the story. This was my project for Liam after-all, he wasn’t paying for me to be there, so I needed to respect his space, yet still appease my creative appetite for telling a great story. This project wasn’t Tim Hetherington’s ‘Sleeping Soldiers’, but I still aspired to bring in a certain amount of emotion and connection between the audience and Liam’s story from seeing moments of vulnerability and humility. From my perspective I felt that my focus wasn’t even so much about the actual fight itself, not about showing it at least. I felt that the fight was the easiest and most transparent aspect of this project to view. Within the confines of the steel cage there would be multiple cameras filming multiple angles of the action, as well as an army of sports photographers capturing the fight in technically superior ways to me. I almost conceded that I would give up the money shots of the fight, but focus my attention and ability to the areas they wouldn’t be at. After all, these guys didn’t get photos of Liam in deep concentration as his girlfriend nearly beat him at an MMA video game…