They’re a vanishing breed, but there are still a few small towns in America where, on a Friday night, the whole family can find an evening of excitement, participatory theatre, and dinner (if hotdogs, pretzels, and soda pop count – and why shouldn’t they), all for under $20, in the form of “indy” wrestling, the bottom rung of the pro wrestling ladder. Has-beens and wanna-bes who are too old or too young, too fat or too skinny for the big league adorn themselves in home-made costumes and do battle in makeshift arenas, playing out what renowned French intellectual, photography critic, and wrestling fan Roland Barthes called “a great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice” that “presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks.”
Not that the ardent fans who hand over a few dollars admission for the privilege of occupying folding metal chairs within spitting distance (as determined by actual observation) of the ring for three hours would describe it that way. Actually, they hardly notice if the chairs are uncomfortable, since they spend much of the evening on their feet, hollering, shaking fists, and making rude gestures at the low-down cheating scoundrels who scheme to rob favorites of the colossal championship belts, burnished to blinding radiance, for which the heroes – with all their relatable imperfections – so valiantly and honorably do battle.
But it’s true: these humble gladiatorial performances are the fraying end of a dramatic tradition that stretches back in time through Shakespeare to classical Greek drama and beyond, reflecting patterns and twists of fate that resonate across the wide spectrum of humanity. Good battles evil but doesn’t always triumph. Referees, embodying justice, are invariably dimwitted and undersized. The fighters give it their all, bodies flying through the air acrobatically, faces contorted into the very picture of unbearable pain. Bad guys play dirty tricks, rousing heroes’ righteous anger. Spectators shout, gesture, and occasionally throw a punch of their own. What the first-time viewer might mistake for violence and aggression are in fact reimagined, contextualized performances of this behavior, so that when the last match is done the audience goes home feeling not anxiety, but catharsis. Unlike the trauma of real violence, the performed version builds to a sense of relief; some in the audience bring home autographed photos as mementos.
Curmudgeons dismiss pro wrestling as “fake,” but fans will tell you it’s anything but, for the dramas that play out (mostly) within the confines of those rubbery ropes and beefy turnbuckles ring true as the Liberty Bell to the day-to-day experiences of the short-end-of-the-stick crowd that shows up week after week to root for their idols. The scale is small, the production values modest, the status of both performers and audience is low in the world at large, but indy wrestling is an evening of live entertainment, a unique blend of sport and theatre that channels eternal human themes.
And so a few years ago, when I saw a flyer in my mom’s hometown in Tennessee advertising Friday Night Wrestling, I couldn’t wait to grab my camera and head for the strip mall. Giving credit where it’s due, I owe a footnote here to my college photography teacher, the documentary photographer Geoff Winningham, whose first book was Friday Night in the Coliseum, an in-depth look at professional wrestling in Houston in the late 1960s/early ‘70s. No doubt recollections of Geoff’s work helped fuel my enthusiasm for the wrestling topic.
Shooting indy wrestling matches presents many challenges. In fact, it ultimately led me to embrace rangefinder cameras. While it was full-frame and had an excellent lens, the camera I used for my wrestling work had “helpful” autofocus that couldn’t keep up with the in-your-face, fast-paced action. I can’t count how many shots I missed because the autofocus latched onto a vibrating rope, random hand gesture in the foreground, or flying object launched from the ring. The ability to preset the focus zone where I think the best action will happen is essential. But sadly, although I’ve become quite proficient with rangefinders in the last few years, I have yet to shoot a wrestling match the way I’d like. The promoter in my mom’s town went broke after a few months, shutting down the local wrestling scene. Covid has been an obstacle, but I’m still determined to find another indy venue and try out my updated skills and gear some day.
Shooting a demimonde such as wrestling means putting yourself in a milieu where you probably can’t blend in. In my experience, it’s a good idea to come up with a plausible story – mostly if not entirely true – and tell it in an open and forthright way to those who give you funny looks. Don’t try to hide or to be a star. Explain why you’re there if asked and go about your business as unobtrusively as possible. With luck some of the insiders will take you under their wing. That happened to me at one wrestling event. It was near election time and a local politician showed up. He noticed my camera (the only one in the room that didn’t also make phone calls) and soon was introducing himself. Before long he had connected me with several organizers of the night’s entertainment. Equally likely, your differences may arouse suspicion. I was banned from one of my favorite wrestling venues for a long list of imagined misbehavior, such as stepping into roped-off safety zones (I was always very careful about where I put my feet, but will concede to some heavy leaning). Truth was, I was just too different, with my fancy camera and city clothes. If it happens to you, don’t take it personally, don’t get angry, just move on. Your next stop will probably be more welcoming.
Although it’s not my newest work, I’ve always had a soft spot for the wrestling pictures, my first real project after I got serious again about photography. The project seemed a bit jinxed: not only did the window of opportunity close before I made the right connections and hit my photographic stride, but somehow a few dozen image files were lost forever during a hardware upgrade. The photos that remain are all the more precious for the way they document a time and place not easily recovered. And isn’t that the real essence of photography?