Photo by Mike Calimbas
Maggie Left is an official photographer for the IBJJF, touring the world and photographing BJJ athletes. Coming from a background of photography, she brought her love of BJJ to her lense and now has a portfolio of moments capturing the fleeting glimpses of an athletes soul. #stateofsoul
Can you tell us a bit about your background, did you study photography, how did you start photographing BJJ competitors?
I received my BA in Arts of Photography 13 years ago, and went straight into working as a photographer in the music industry, going on tour with some well known musicians. I exhibited at Casa de America in Madrid, and then went to NYC photographing Jazz musicians. When I was 28 I decided to focus more on the TV and Advertising industry. Four years later I started training BJJ and fell in love with it. My personal life changed that year and at the suggestion of a friend I started taking photos again. I took my camera to an IBJJF tournament, and was happy with the results. Then in 2015 I went to Lisbon for the Euros with my camera as a spectator, posting the photos on my old studio facebook page. This increased my BJJ followers but nothing else changed. A few months later I went to Roger Gracie Academy HQ in London and loved it. I got to know Oli Geddes and he soon became one of my favourite people in the Jiu Jitsu world. It wasn’t long before I was asked to cover the IBJJF British Nationals in 2015.
At home, a casting director asked me to take some portraits of her, so I was back in the studio. Suddenly new ideas of photo projects started to fill my heart and mind. #keepitsmileful was just the tip of the iceberg, so much can be shown through photography, ways to empower women and athletes, I wanted to give it a real try.
In 2017 I bought the camera I used in 2015 from my brother in arms Miguel, and I called my friend and amazing photographer Alberto Heras, a guy who is being in the photography industry for more than 30 years, who has worked for some of the most important magazines in the world (Vogue, Traveller, AD…) and told him to come with me to Lisbon. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to cover his expenses or sell a single picture, but he baked some cookies to share with the other photographers, packed all his new gear and came! We didn’t make any money at all, it was exhausting but still, we got some really good shots and I cannot thank him enough.
After the IBJJF London Winter Open 2017, Luca Anacoreta suggested that I speak to the IBJJF to cover the Rome Open and NOGI Europeans, and they hired me. I love working with them as they are always nice, and I always feel loved and respected. I’m just at the beginning of this new path, but I feel very blessed. People don’t know how much hard work goes behind every single picture, I love seeing the pictures immortalizing instants of the soul and people being able to recognize it too.
Through your observations of men and women’s fights, what are the main differences between them?
I haven’t seen a difference. They can both be aggressive, emotional, disrespectful and honourable. The difference is that the women’s matches will usually have less photographers and videographers covering it.
A lot of people say that women are less aggressive and that men go more for submissions. I disagree, I think there are many schools who play the tactical BJJ and others that do not, it’s not about gender but about self confidence and BJJ styles.
My photographic style is described as emotional (#stateofsoul). There is no gender in the emotional aspect of life.
Do you see a world where there are as many women competing as men?
That would be a safer world for women. I look forward to seeing more empowered women walking in the streets and being role-models for future generations. All women who train fighting sports and martial arts eventually have that aura of a self empowerment and strength.
I think there is still a long path to go but we could make it happen. We need more media outlets trusting female athletes and giving them greater coverage. I’ve worked in media and advertising for more than 13 years now. Iif the press decide to put someone in the spotlight, he/she will be. The thing is they must truly want to tell the story, and so far, big media outlets predominantly focus on men and telling the story of men. There are some articles about women, but the numbers are not even close, yet. However, things are changing, and very slowly we are going to see more brands sponsoring women the same way they sponsor men, which would mean much more exposure.
What do you see to be the biggest challenge for women in contact sports?
There are many challenges. For me Martial Arts are just a microcosm of real life. Many people have been raising the issue of safety in gyms lately; I’ve met amazing and respectful men in contact sports as well as strong self confident empowered women. Sadly, I’ve also come across men seeking to take advantage of women, and women lacking self-respect and self-esteem who train. As women we have exactly the same challenges on and off the mats, the difference is that if we are smart enough, learning the emotional pattern in martial arts can assist us in changing the rule set outside of it.
In order to fight, we need love, patience and humility. We need to trust our teachers and love ourselves, staying safe. We learn to stay calm and have spatial awareness. We need to honor our lessons, our bodies, and believe that we are capable of things that we may not even know about, and very importantly, we should enjoy it! (#keepitsmileful). We must also respect our opponents because they have trained as much as we have. We have to trust in our own strength, and be thankful in order to keep learning and improving.
Can you imagine if, as a woman, you felt like this off the mat? Being guided by self respect and love, trusting your intuition and everything you have learnt from those around you. Believing in yourself, trusting your body that it is doing all the right things, knowing your value and protecting yourself, being humble and grateful and always progressing forward.
Do you think we would allow things to happen in the world to continue as they do now? You don’t allow anyone to choke you on the mats, why you would allow anyone to suffocate you in your everyday life. This is my biggest challenge, applying lessons I have learnt on the mats to everyday situations.
What do you think about the issue of what is attractive for men and women? The ‘men are attractive when they are working out but women are not’ cliche. Do you think this is changing fast/slow/not at all?
I honestly think we need to sex things down a bit. For God’s sake we sell sex to sell milk!!
The problem with the cliche is that it shouldn’t be about what is attractive and not. It creates a mythical category of women who are attractive when they train, putting women with self-esteem issues off because they don’t feel like they fall into this canon of ‘beauty’.
Also sexualizing sports is unhelpful for tackling issues related to sexual harassment. I want people (not genders) to train because of the health benefits, the positive effects on self-esteem self-confidence, their social life and inner growth.
Betty, because none of this would never have even be possible without her encouragement.
To all the photographers who work and inspire me from the highest levels.
To my family for believing in me and always supporting me (Marieta you rock!),
To my RGA family (Mauricio, Roger, Oli Geddes, Junior, Charles, Nima, Nina, Clara, Alexi, Louisa, Dean… for giving me a home far from home, when in London and in every trip around the world.
To my #keepitsmilefulathletes Yas Wilson, Sam Cook and Fiona Middleton for always supporting and believing in me, we are going to do great things, I know it.
To all the athletes who support my work: Eduardo Teta (and the Frontline troops), Darragh O’Connail (and the ECJJA crew who are always on the #leftway), CFC, Anacoreta, Yan… Basically… to all of you who are always ready to feel things and inspire me with them…