Elle Perez went to her first underground wrestling match a few years ago, on a whim. The fight was scripted, just like WWE, but rather than being broadcast on TV for an audience of millions, it was performed in a Bronx rec center for a hundred-odd fans. The black and Latino fighters were from the borough, like Perez, who was then just starting an MFA in photography at Yale. Feeling inspired by the way they used their wrestling personas to experiment with new identities, she started hanging around and making pictures with them. She called the series Raw. Here, alongside some of her favorite images, Perez explains the process behind them and why wrestling means so much more to her than pile-drivers and backflips.
Elle Perez: I first heard about the underground entertainment wrestling scene in the Bronx after my cousin’s wrestling persona added me on Facebook. I was like, “What the hell is this?” His wrestling persona is from Canada, which is really interesting when you think about what a Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx’s ideal persona would be. Like, here that’s what’s exotic.
I went to his show at a community center inside a housing development. You walk into the basketball court, and there’s a makeshift wrestling ring in the middle, surrounded by all these people screaming for their favorites and booing at the villains. It reminded me of underground punk shows when I was 14 or 15. Fantasy can take off running, and you can be this version of yourself that somehow couldn’t exist in the real world, you know?
There are a few entertainment wrestling organizations in the Bronx, and they each do a show once a month. But the wrestlers practice every single day, getting stronger, improving their flexibility, working on different tricks that they can do with their partner for the next match. It’s an incredible dedication to mastering a craft. A lot of their work is about this repetition, trying and trying and trying until you get it. It’s like photography, in that way.
Sometimes I would photograph the wrestling shows, running around the ring and through the audience, trying to capture a split-second in time that’s really dynamic and explosive. In those shots, everything is amplified. People are pouring out of the frame, and the world in the photograph just bursts out. Other times, I would work with the wrestlers more directly, during downtime in practice when I could direct certain poses to get shots I knew I really wanted. Eventually, they got so comfortable that me being in the locker rooms wasn’t even a big deal.
Everyone has experienced that false dichotomy of your essential identity: the boxes people put you in versus how you imagine yourself. Online, and wherever we can control our own image, we play with constructing the identity that we desire. Wrestling is another way of doing that, and doing it in a way that is playful. You can access a certain kind of sexuality, or a comedic identity. I think wrestling is important for people in my community who are denied certain types of identities and can’t be anyone they want in the “real” world. You can be anyone you want in the ring.