Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Richard Wade started taking photographs when he was 12 years old. He says: “I took pictures all throughout my teenage years but never considered that what I was doing was photography.” It was only when he dropped out of university after three months of studying that he decided to take his photography seriously and enrolled on the photography degree course at Ulster School of Art.
Having since moved to the US, Richard has spent the past three years documenting the staged violence of professional wrestling and the ways in which America’s political tensions are played out in the ring. He tells us: “I first saw wrestling in 1998 and I became instantly hooked. A wrestler’s identity tends to be their normal personality amped up to ten. I think coming from Northern Ireland, a place where you are brought up in many ways to repress your identity, made me even more infatuated with the bright lights and drama of wrestling. My dad also bought me lots of wrestling figures when I was growing up. I’d build little sets and photograph them. It was my introduction to photography and gave me so much joy as a teenager. One of the best elements of the project for me is that I have now photographed many of the wrestlers whose action figures I photographed around 17 years ago.”
As Richard describes the series, entitled Draw a Squared Circle: “This body of work looks at the world of independent professional wrestling, an extreme type of physical storytelling that mixes soap opera storylines with choreographed stage fighting. Events range from small shows in bars and clubs to large-scale productions in arenas. A portion of the project looks at death match wrestling: an ultra-violent form of the sport where wrestlers perform brutal blood-laden matches with weapons. These contests feature barbed wire bats, thumbtacks, fluorescent light tubes and flaming tables. Much like ancient human sacrifice, wrestling has always economised a desire within people to view and enjoy the suffering of others. While making this project I was interested in using photography to deconstruct the performance and spectacle of wrestling. I want the work to hint at wrestling itself as a performance of the political and ideological divisions that are prevalent in contemporary American politics.”
Speaking of the ways in which the politics that govern America – both in the present and historically – are mirrored in the performance of wrestling, Richard says: “Wrestling at its core is a passion play about suffering, redemption and defeat. It has always elevated contemporary societal issues to mythical levels through its characters and storylines. For example, in the early 1980s, the all-American Hulk Hogan feuded and defeated the ‘wicked’ Iranian Iron Sheik. Another example would be Sargent Slaughter, a US army drill instructor who feuded with Nikolai Volkoff, a ‘villainous’ Russian (who was actually from Croatia.)”
And it’s not only about storylines that mimic political affairs and societal attitudes. Richard perceives, in the very performance of wrestling, a duplicitousness that directly parallels the deceptive campaigns conducted by egotistical career politicians. He states: “Characters operate on varying levels of complexity and often adjust their performances in response to the audience’s behaviour. This ability to read and adapt to the needs of the audience requires advanced tools of manipulation and a skilled understanding of psychology. Trump, (who has appeared numerous times as a character in wrestling) has all the characteristics of an exemplary villain – or ‘heel’ in wrestling terms. His presidential campaign used all the techniques of a seasoned rogue wrestler who can easily manipulate an audience into acting how he or she wants. Throughout this project, I was interested in exploring the transmutation of the wrestlers, from ordinary people into gods and demigods. This kind of dramatic transformation can be linked to that of Trump’s sudden rise to power. Instead of wrestling mimicking politics, politics now feels more like it belongs inside the world of wrestling. There are now no rules for what is good, bad, real and fake.”
Richard’s approach to photography appropriately plays to the spectacle of wrestling. “I think it’s fair to say my style is a little dramatic at times,” he admits. “There are usually lots of bodies flying through the air, sometimes blood, often times baby oil. I love Renaissance paintings, so I like taking pictures that have a lot happening and require multiple reads by the viewer. Wrestling, of course, is a spectacular subject.”
Treading the line between choreographed performance and actual, bloody violence, the shows that Richard photographs embody the disorientating misalignment of the mythic proportions and cult villain status granted to political figures by media-driven sensationalism and the very real threat that such figures pose. He tells us that, ultimately, “I want the work to act as a hyper-real metaphor for the deep ideological divisions that have demolished the status quo.”