A photographer has revealed his experiences going outside the ring and describing what it’s like to capture the life and people behind the brutal world of pro wrestling.
Iowa native Michael Watson left an enviable job as a music photographer after becoming “burnt out,” and instead began exploring another lifelong interest.
He first discovered the scene of pro wrestling about a decade ago, when he took a five-hour road trip to Chicago to shoot an event there.
Speak against magazine Huck, he has described how he immediately became addicted. Pro wrestling, he says, drew parallels to his experience shooting the DIY music scene in the Midwest, and he was able to easily adapt to the new setting.
“It just felt like home,” Watson tells the magazine. “It all felt just like when I went to see live music when I was 17, with how everyone interacted. There was that blurry line between artist and audience, and that very intimate setting, which is my favorite atmosphere for art in any medium.’
Iowa native Michael Watson left an enviable job as a music photographer after getting “burnt out” and instead took up another lifelong interest: pro wrestling. Pictured: A pro wrestler launches himself off stage just before crashing into a fellow performer in this action-packed shot by Watson
Pictured: A pro wrestler poses for photographer Michael Watson against a barbed wire-lined chain link in her costume in this portrait image
Pictured: A costumed pro wrestler stares at Michael Watson’s camera
Pictured: A pro wrestler stretches out in this candid backstage photo of Michael Watson
Watson’s stunning close-up and personal shots capture a combination of action, posed portraits and candid behind-the-scenes moments.
Many of the venues look different from the packed stadiums associated with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) events. Instead, the photos are taken in smaller locations such as hotels, bars or other similar establishments.
But Watson has captured photos of some of wrestling’s biggest stars — from performing in small DIY arenas to fighting live on TV every week.
Although the photographer has been hired by All Elite Wrestling to capture their major pay-per-view events, he has supplemented his career by shooting more intimate events, while also teaching and publishing photography books.
Watson first made pro wrestling at the Berwyn Eagles Club in Chicago – a professional wrestling venue in Berwyn, Illinois. He never looked back.
Pictured: A wrestler is launched over a ring’s rope in this action-packed photo of Michael Watson, who has been pro wrestling for about a decade
Pictured: Two wrestlers, covered in blood, clash in the ring as the crowd watches
Pictured: A portrait of a pro wrestler by Michael Watson. The performer is seen with scars on his back and shoulder, and his head covered in what appears to be blood
Pictured: A pro wrestler is seen in the air, moments before stomping on a rival
Pictured: A referee counts down as a pro wrestler lies on the mat in this photo by Michael Watson
Pictured: A pro wrestler, covered in blood, flexes his muscles for photographer Michael Watson
Pictured: A close-up photo shows two pro wrestlers wrestling in the ring
His photos are often shot in black and white and on film, he says, because they have a “grainy, rough texture” that captures the rougher side of the scene.
Watson told the magazine he was initially concerned that no one would be interested in his black and white shots when other photographers shot in high resolution, which made pro wrestling “look even more professional than it was,” he said.
But he stuck with it and experimented with his film cameras – borrowing ideas from his days when he photographed musical performances in small, dingy venues.
“They’re very raw and showcase the intimacy of these shows, and it’s not a bad thing that the building is small and the audience is in the ring and things like that,” he said.
“That really changed my mind about how I looked at the pictures I was taking.”
Many of Watson’s photos show wrestlers before, after, or even during breaks from performances. Many are shown covered in blood and sweat during an intense show.
Others, from the side of the ring, show them in the middle of the action. While many elements of pro wrestling are stage, the physicality involved is very real.
Capturing shots of the wrestlers in the scene takes confidence, Watson explains. That means knowing when it’s appropriate to take photos and when to stop.
Most of it is just being around and being someone who can pick up on social cues, and they know I’m not going to come and punish them if they’re in the middle of something,” he tells Huck magazine.
Pictured: Two female professional wrestlers are seen in the middle of a move as they fight in the ring
Pictured: One pro wrestler knocks down a chair on top of another as a crowd cheers them on
Pictured: A pro wrestling match spilled out of the ring and photographed in the audience seats by Michael Watson
“If they say, “Not now,” I just say, “Yeah, no problem!” It’s a weird kind of high pressure situation. These people are about to go out to, or have just returned from a performance in front of many people in a very physical way. It’s dangerous.’
Watson says pro wrestlers are great subjects of his art because they’re a “colorful cast of crazies,” by which he means “adorable,” he points out.
“You have all these really interesting and very diverse people in an area to shoot, and then you tell me they’re all going to put on crazy costumes or pre-sun or make a bunch of crazy faces at me?
“Sign me up!” he says.