Though Esther Lin remains conspicuous ringside at the largest bouts in combat sports, her iconic shots are anything but. Covering Invicta FC since its inception, Lin is widely recognized as the pinnacle of her profession in mixed martial arts.
Corey Smith: How did your passion for photography first come about? When was the first time realized you had a talent for it?
Esther Lin: I started in painting and film and my father is an artist so I have always been around the arts. I went to college for documentary production and cinematography and worked various jobs all over Hollywood until I landed a post-production job at a small production company that asked me to shoot production stills for their low-budget films.
EL: I spent weekends shooting production stills for a schoolmate who directed music videos and honestly, I was pretty terrible. But I kept doing it even after I left the job for yet another random production job.
CS: At what stage in your career did you first begin to photograph mixed martial arts shows? How did that opportunity come about?
EL: In late 2006, my fiancée Casey started working for ProElite and brought me in to work their in graphics and some productions. Then in early 2007 I went to my first MMA smoker in a local gym while doing production work for ProElite. I brought along my camera and shot the fights and had a lot of good shots for my first fight ever. I spent the next two years going to local events for the ProElite website.
EL: I wasn’t really a photographer before I shot MMA. I did shoot and I did try to get jobs as a photographer, shot a few weddings and events, but I wouldn’t have introduced myself as a photographer. From 2007, I have pretty much exclusively shot MMA and boxing. In late 2008, EliteXC and ProElite laid me off and I spent the next six months living off my unemployment checks, honing my craft and trying to pick up freelance jobs as a photographer.
EL: Fighters Only Magazine then gave me my first cover, a photo I took of Kimbo Slice. In April 2009, Strikeforce went on Showtime and I covered all the press events and the fight. When I got to the fight, they didn’t have a cageside spot for me, shooting for Fighters Only Magazine, so I had to sit in press row.
EL: Instead of wasting the trip, I photographed all over the event, the walkouts, wide sprawling arena shots, different POVs of each fight from the audience and Ken Hershman, who was at Showtime but now at HBO, saw my gallery and asked me to come work for Strikeforce.
CS: What do you think Invicta FC does for the sport of Women’s MMA? How has your experience been with the company thus far?
EL: I think Invicta FC is a fantastic platform for WMMA. Actually, it’s a great platform for MMA. MMA grows faster when the women’s divisions flourish as well. I love working for Invicta FC. It is my favorite promotion to shoot because the athletes are full of heart and love and just dears to photograph. The action is unparalleled and Invicta president Shannon Knapp allowed me and Casey creative freedom in our photography and video work.
CS: Other than MMA, what other sports do you shoot? What types of unique challenges are there while photographing a mixed martial arts event?
EL: I only shoot combat sports, mainly MMA and boxing. MMA has the cage, which is a challenge, and ground fighting is difficult to photograph at certain angles while boxing is pretty easy, it’s just timing and a little luck.
CS: How much are you able to enjoy a bout while you are shooting it?
EL: I always enjoy shooting a fight. Maybe I’d be a better shooter if I wasn’t so into the fight.
CS: Are there any major differences in working a small show compared to a larger one?
EL: Big shows have more breaks, different timing, and brighter lights. The athletes are mostly the same but there’s less access and intimacy at large shows.
CS: Have you faced any barriers as a female photographer in a largely male populated profession?
EL: There’s been a few times when people have suggested that I only have gotten work because I’m female, which is pretty ridiculous because I can tell you that it is not an advantage. I don’t want to call anyone out but there have been a handful of times I’ve been passed up for less experienced male competition. Their loss, though.
CS: Regardless of the sport, what do you believe is the key to an iconic shot?
EL: Story is key.
CS: You have a genuine love for the sport beyond a means of income. What do you love most about MMA?
EL: I just love all the stories. Everyone involved from fighters to coaches to the people that build the cage.
CS: With the type of access you have to mixed martial arts athletes, what moments stand out in your mind?
EL: I remember my first press tour was a day with Gina Carano hitting up various media outlets in New York City in 2009 and that was really big for me. I loved every countdown shoot I’ve done for Invicta. And being in the locker rooms at Strikeforce was important for me, you see the before and after in the most intimate space. And this last year I went on a nine-city press tour with Floyd Mayweather and Canelo Alvarez — perhaps the biggest series of events I’ve ever been a part of.
EL: I’ve also been at every major women’s bout from the first on CBS, Carano vs Cyborg, Ronda Rousey’s UFC debut, etc. I welled up with emotion when Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche walked out at the Honda Center.
CS: Lastly, who would you like to thank?
EL: I’d like to thank Casey for being my cheerleader. Showtime for giving me really huge opportunities, mainly Chris DeBlasio for his continual support of my art. And Shannon Knapp for trusting that I know what I’m doing — and letting me do it.