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Mike Calimbas Photographer Profile

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Do good, and good things follow...

One of the most respected and utilized event photographers in the sport, Mike Calimbas of Houston, Texas, armed with a Nikon D750 and a slew of lenses, applies this ethos to various facets of his life. Whether it be his photographic work, which you’ll see pop up in event recaps from tournaments and superfight cards across the country, or his ambitious charity auction which raised tens of thousands of dollars to support victims of the disasters in Houston and Puerto Rico, Mike seems to always let his genuine good intention steer the direction of his projects.

 

     Calimbas considers his role in jiu jitsu as that of a documentarian preserving history. The media that he and fellow photographers are producing will serve as a historical time capsule for the sport in years to come, and affect how those in the future reflect upon the sport’s past. For him, the recognition many seek for artistic merit takes a backseat to his role as curator of jiu jitsu history.

     One of the hard parts, however, about archiving jiu jitsu, is that relative to other sports, jiu jitsu is very much a niche sport. There is no means for a full time jiu jitsu photographer to support themselves financially, especially considering that most full time jiu jitsu athletes struggle to do the same. Calimbas references his place in the sport as an evolution- citing his experience as a writer and editor before trying his hand at photography. While jiu jitsu photography is hardly a lucrative business in the modern age, he sees himself as contributing towards the expansion of jiu jitsu as a sport, possibly paving the way for future photographers to have more gainful opportunities than are currently available.

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Calimbas looks for

opportunity to grow and improve constantly. One would imagine event photography gets monotonous, especially when resigned to IBJJF tournaments which are often comprised of the same athletes, settings, routines and conditions.

Stagnation is Mike’s enemy, and he tries to plan a varied schedule, offsetting jiu jitsu tournaments with studio and portrait work, or something more creative in order to switch things up. Considering this year he spent 40 of 52 weekends shooting Fight 2 Win Pro events, in addition to the IBJJF majors, it is imperative to shoot for fun as well, to “keep his perspective fresh.” He says the “only bad situation, is not growing.”

     With so much time spent shooting the recent Fight 2 Win Pro events (with the upcoming event being the 56th in under two years as a promotion), Calimbas cites Seth Daniels’ super fight promotion as one of the most personally fulfilling endeavors of his photographic career. As a purple belt himself, Mike admires the ground up approach that Daniels has taken to building something that not only showcases the sport, but supports the athletes through exposure, and the one thing these athletes truly need to establish themselves-- money.

In 2017 we’ll have paid grapplers close to a million dollars to compete on our stage. I believe the work we are doing is undervalued. Nobody else in our space is running this hard to grow jiu jitsu at the grassroots level. I’m proud that we’re doing it the right way with the proper values.

     Surely, Calimbas’ pride in working with an event that pays athletes must in some way be embedded in his experiences working in the creative arts field. Too often, artists, graphic designers and photographers especially, are under appreciated and undervalued for the work they produce, and taken advantage of through attempts to barter. In this industry outright theft of intellectual property is not uncommon. For example, Mike once had a company take his photo from the internet without permission to use in a commercial, and even went so far as to crop his name out. Despite this slight, Calimbas responds “who I am to say?” when questioned if his work is under appreciated, and he is adamant that he doesn’t give a damn about mere photo accreditation.

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“I don’t care about photo credits, like not even a little bit."   

I don’t care about photo credits, like not even a little bit. My work is in a magazine damn near every month and you don’t see me pimping those credits out. Why? Because they don’t pay my bills. The payment of the invoices do. My general frame of mind when it comes to use of my photos is: if there’s any commercial application at all and you’re trying to market and make money off my hard work, then you damn sure should be paying me first.
— Take note

     Another challenge for a working professional is navigating the sea of fresh photographers that often create free event galleries as they build their own portfolios, which creates competition but often at the expense of quality. When asked about this specifically, Mike says “I feel it does dilute when any random newbie can just pick up a press pass and shoot somewhere like Pans or Worlds. The net result is usually that new person is so keen on becoming marketable and getting community validation that they end up flooding the market with free images. No matter the quality, it still puts a damper on those trying to do this for a sustainable living and not as a hobby.” Make no mistake however, his business savvy approach does not undermine his love for what he does. “The main thing I’ve heard from rookies is ‘I just do this because I love it.’ Well, no shit Sherlock. If I didn’t love it too, would I be doing it for all these years for next to nothing? But let’s help each other out a little here. How can other folks respect and value our work if we don’t put value on it first?” Still, he remembers a time when he was in their position, and feels no animosity towards amateur photographers trying to come up at bigger events. He asserts his wish to uplift everyone with a camera or a gi, stating “I was also there. I’d never be mad or hate them for it. We just need to work together, educate, create some standards, and grow the profession.”

     Looking at Calimbas’ photographs is like stepping into the fabled Pyramid in June. There is a sense of sensory overload as you browse the galleries of his images, and it is impossible to ignore the sheer variety and spontaneity of the subjects. While many have a specific and focused approach to their subjects, in Mike’s portfolio you’ll find action shots as well as portraits, in black & white or color, depending on what strikes him at the moment.

On his personal style:

I’ve never really been concerned with outside opinions. What happens is I’ll do one thing for awhile, then decide to do something different. I don’t know if it’s just me wanting to keep things interesting or just that I’m evolving as an artist and as a person. Probably a little bit of both. It’s never by design. I’m kind of just staying true to me.

     Indeed, Calimbas’ self truth is his guiding principle. Considering the immense damage that Hurricane Harvey caused to the Houston area, Calimbas emerged from the disaster extremely lucky. He was stranded in Vegas for over a week following Masters Worlds, and upon returning, found his family safe, their homes dry, and his car parked in the one airport lot that had not flooded. Referencing his son, Calimbas told me he “couldn’t take a 7 year old to rip out sheetrock so I just wanted to do something else [to help].” As a means to contribute to the floods in Houston, he organized a charity auction to raise money for families in need of aid. His goal was to deliver “proceeds directly to folks in need. Not to an entity where you don’t have control over how the money is allocated, but checks written by me directly into affected families’ hands.” The project started modestly, but snowballed as more and more people in the jiu jitsu community volunteered to contribute time and resources. The auctions included private lessons with notable instructors and athletes, products and services from various companies, year long tuition to academies nationwide, and more. Despite raising far more money than anyone anticipated, the effect of this project was not realized until just afterward.

I actually got to talking to folks and distributing money to them personally after everything ended. That was very emotionally impactful for me. We really overshot our goal. To the point where we were even able to give close to 5K to folks impacted in Puerto Rico. So we really helped a lot. Everyone involved should be proud.
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To put into perspective how immensely successful this project was, the top three grossing auctions were private lessons with Renzo Gracie, The Danaher Death Squad, and Marcelo Garcia, which netted $3,750, $3,300 and $1,650 respectively. The entire auction raised just shy of $38,000 total for affected families. Certainly, orchestrating a project of this magnitude deserves, at least, a pat on the back. Ever humble, Mike brushes off my comments about how overwhelming managing a project that grew to this scale must have been:

Do good and good things follow. I didn’t really set expectations. I just got it rolling then we did the best we could in the time we had. It was a lot to manage but I’m kind of used to being in that type of fire so it was okay. We did a good job.

Mike Calimbas is a jiu jitsu purple belt and photographer from Houston, Texas. His personal website is www.mikecalimbas.com and you can follow his photostream on Instsgram @mikecalimbas.

Please support photographers in jiu jitsu by purchasing their work, and properly crediting it. Special thanks to Mike Calimbas and Jesse Soto of Jexsestudios for their photographic content.