A Photographer’s Emotionally-Charged Journey Through the Thai Jungle

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Drew Jarrett Jungle Dreams
Jungle DreamsCourtesy Drew Jarrett

In 2001, after years working in fashion, Drew Jarrett began documenting life inside a remote Muay Thai boxing gym

It was 2001, and Drew Jarrett was taking his final hit in London’s Heathrow airport. After struggling with drug addiction for nearly nine years, the photographer had finally made a plan: he was going to quit his job, get clean, and make a fresh start in the jungles of Thailand.

Jarrett had spent much of the former decade carousing in the heart of the fashion industry. He had been living in west London with Glen Luchford and Mario Sorrenti, shooting supermodels and colossal creative talents (all captured in his previous book, 1994). It was an adventure, but one that he soon felt disillusioned by. 

“I needed to get clean and wanted to do a project through Asia,” explains the photographer in his latest book, Jungle Dreams. A marked difference from his previous work, the project ended up being focused on a Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) training gym for young boys in Krabi. Here, Jarratt tells us more about the emotions that lie behind the book, and the lessons he has learned in the years since. 

“I first started to take pictures around 1992. They were mainly of my friends, family, and my travels. I wasn’t really doing much fashion – it was more art and reportage. I was all over the world, capturing all sorts of people. I then moved to New York City and started doing a lot of fashion, but by 1998 the magazines were all starting to get more commercial, and I felt like that wasn’t what I signed up for. Also, by then, I was using drugs. So I decided to stop and made my trip to Thailand.

“This was one of my first real projects, where I immersed myself in just one subject. It was about trying to cover all that was around me. I wanted to capture the boys’ energy not just in the ring, but also outside of it.

“There are a lot of emotions running through Jungle Dreams – emotions from both me and from the kids. It was a very hard time in my life, and I have always been a person with strong feelings and affection for the people I’m around. Even by the time I met the boys I still wasn’t in great shape, but once I was in the ring with the kids it was like a dream. Their movement, their energy, their grace, and their dedication was just mind-blowing. I immersed myself in them, and the way they took me in was very humbling. I had not been around my own kids enough, and so it brought a lot of things home to me.

“It took me some time after getting back from Thailand to move forward with my life. I eventually started to print images from the trip, and sold a few, and got some great feedback. I then made contact with a few publishers but I guess they didn’t like or get this style of photography. Maybe my name wasn’t a well-known enough, or I wasn’t trendy enough for them.

“That said, it took 24 years to get my 1994 book published. It’s all about timing; meeting the right people, and having them appreciate my style. At the end of the day, I do my best to do make timeless images. I keep my integrity, and I stand by not being commercial.

“In the years since my trip to Thailand, my life has changed so much in so many ways. I am appreciating my children and friends more, making amends to the love ones that I hurt, and I am keeping clean. The person I was then wasn’t so bad, but I also wasn’t as good as I could have been. It wasn’t the way my parents had brought me up. Also, I didn’t like the way I stopped socialising – I just stopped seeing people, and only cared about when and how I was going to get my next hit. It was nasty.

“2020 has given me the time to find so much from my archives that I never knew was even there. I can appreciate my work more now. Also, because I was stuck at home, I found myself spending more time with my kids, and documenting them. It also gave me the time to work on all of the negatives from Jungle Dreams, which were really scratched up. Once these crazy times come to an end, I hope to uncover more projects like this.”

Jungle Dreams is published by PARADIGM