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Snaps: A Digital Gallery of Martial Arts Mementos

By Gabby Etzel

I started training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at 13 years old. I was not an athletic kid. I fell into the sport by accident, though the part of me that wishes on eyelashes and wears rose quartz around my neck likes to believe it was fate.


The martial art became the one constant in my life–A second home I could always find my way to, no matter where I am. I trained and competed in my Jersey hometown, in New York City for college, and even while studying abroad in Europe. While Cathleen and I are on our post-grad, discover-the-world travels, I’m still on the mats every day to prepare for my next competition and I could not be more grateful for the gyms that open their doors for me.


In 2020, I was completing my college courses from home rather than NYC due to the pandemic, and it didn’t take long for me to get antsy. Antsy enough, at least, to pick up 10-12 new extracurriculars–Only a few of which are still around today (don’t worry, we’ll talk about Cake Tuesday soon).


I began collecting Polaroids of my teammates and friends during and after training. The photos weren't great at first–I hadn’t figured out how close I had to be to get a good shot. A few packs of Walmart film later, they got better. You could at least make out the subjects, and I started to figure out which positions photographed well.


Two years later, I still take new Polaroids of the people I train with at least once or twice a month, and I make sure to get snaps when I go somewhere new. The photos are never perfect and I have more duds than I know what to do with, but I’m creatively engaging with something I love, so I don’t mind.


I keep some of the photos, but I give most of them to the athletes in them. People always question why I give these away, with the film being so expensive, but I find it more fulfilling. I get to capture a cool moment and then hand it back to the person who created it. It’s a sweet token–A tangible reminder of what they can do.

Plus, maybe one day, everybody in the sport will have a Gabby Polaroid collecting dust in the bottom of their training bag. Selfishly, I think that would be pretty cool.

My teammate Ed puts the Polaroids I give him into this conveniently-sized slip on the outside of his training bag.

Jordyn lines her Polaroids up on her mirror.

I must have taken close to 400 Polaroids at this point. Most of them belong to the subjects now, but I still have a few dozen. I’ve scanned some and taken iPhone camera photos of others to add to my Instagram highlight.


I knew I’d get around to an Absolutely Anything post about these photos eventually because they really do hold a special place in my heart.


In October, I received a very nice message from a stranger that began with “I was inspired by your Polaroids and wanted to travel more with jiu jitsu.”


My Polaroids! A total stranger was inspired by the little 5.4 x 8.6 cm jiu jitsu photos that I collected at home and on my nomadic adventures. Tiny pictures of the people I love doing the thing they love resonated with someone enough to start seeing more of a world within a world.


He may have been the exception, and no one else may find the same meaning in these photos that I do. Or, maybe there’s someone else out there who will. Either way, I think they’re fun to look at. 


Below, find a few of the many BJJ Polaroids I’ve taken over the last two years. I'll add to the new favorites to the wall with every batch of photos I take. 


There's no particular order, which mimics the way I’ve kept them–I have Polaroids on my walls, falling out of my shirt, sticking to my gi pants, and hiding in my spoon pocket (as I said, Cake Tuesday comes later). In fact, this Absolutely Anything gallery might be the closest they'll ever come to being organized.


I don’t worry about it much. They always seem to pop up right when I need to see them.

This is a personal favorite. I don't know where the rest of their bodies went. 

A tale of three armbars

Jen takes cooler photos than I do. Follow her on Instagram @thevisualjenius

Taken while visiting Casey in Peekskill. The Polaroid frame fits the town, I think.

Neither of them realized the other was also pointing until the Polaroid developed.

Ruben and Jen periodically surprise me with baked goods because they're the best. They brought me these cookies at the Orlando Open.

Behold: The first and only known photo of Jake Colalilo, Chris Noonan, and  a dilophosaurus.

I was illegally parked in Philly while taking this.

Yes, that's a strand of my hair that I accidentally scanned onto this photo of myself and Professor Matthias Meister.

Scenes from a post-competition trip to Universal (and an Italian Restaurant)

Roadtrip, a full 24 hours earlier than we planned. Pro tip: Always assume the IBJJF will add the extra comp day.

Team cold. 

Four Filipino girls who are all purple belts (at the time). Chrissy named us "The Ubaes."

Professor Adam gets his black belt. :')

Later, I stood on that second place spot.

Morgan becomes the 2022 kids Pan-Am champ.


Believe it or not, that's my purple belt.

NoLa BJJ holds a special place in my heart. I adored training with these people for a month and I can't wait to see them again soon.

My cousin Justin's first BJJ class!

James took this the morning after my 21st birthday, when I fully intended to train but couldn't because I, uh.. wasn't feeling great.

The first-ever Polaroid taken on my camera! Ft. Chrissy Briggs outside of F2W weigh-ins in 2020.

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