Ben McNutt knows his way around a singlet. For years, the Baltimore-based photographer has meticulously captured the sexually-charged beauty of wrestlers and, through his visual obsession, become synonymous with the sport. He wasn’t just content to pour over thousands of historical images of wrestlers and capture a few in his lens, though. Instead, McNutt trained at a gym, took lessons from a wrestling tutor, and learned some Turkish survival phrases so he could take a trip to the country where oil wrestling is the national sport.
Flying to a foreign country, learning a bit of their language, and lugging around huge cameras in the oil-slicked grass to capture wrestlers as they grapple and lounge may sound crazy, but for McNutt, it’s just another facet of his ongoing artistic mission to explore themes of power, athleticism, and desire.
Still, training his lens so narrowly on singlets and the world's oldest sport isn’t without its critiques. As McNutt has noted before about his work, it’s essential for him to recognize the culture he is capturing. Over the course of his six-year artistic exploration of wrestling, McNutt has become a regular attendee at the Naval Academy’s wrestling competitions in Annapolis, Maryland and, for his Turkish wrestling series, dove deep into the history of the handcrafted leather pants called Kispets that are worn by the wrestlers, which led to his new fascination with Iran’s Zoorkhaneh Rituals.
Throughout this queer odyssey into the world of one of history’s oldest sports, McNutt has come to appreciate the alternative forms of masculinity he finds in his work. We caught up with the artist to talk about what the wrestler represents, creating consensual beauty, and his humble beginnings making Sims 2 music videos.
OUT: What does the wrestler embody for you?
Ben McNutt: The wrestler is a kind of mirror for our desires. When we look at him we are met with feelings. Do you lust for him? Do you admire his athleticism or are you met with disgust towards who he represents? Do you want him, or do you want to become him? What do you see reflected back at you?
Do you plan to keep focusing on wrestling as a theme?
There’s a very real possibility I’ll grow old and still be working with wrestling. It reveals itself to me in new ways every day. I recently traveled to Turkey to work on a series with adolescent oil wrestlers. There, they wear these beautifully hand-crafted leather pants called Kispets. They are delicately embroidered and studded pieces that are made just for the occasion of oil wrestling.
I recently discovered that the aesthetics of these pants mirror the pants worn in a separate, traditionally athletic system used to train warriors in Iran, called the Zoorkhaneh Rituals. These rituals are an ancient practice that shares many of the same pre-Islamic rituals as oil wrestling. I’m totally obsessed with this connection between the two now, and it could very possibly be the next direction for my work.
You identify as a "wresting artist." How does your queer identity impact your work?
I think the queerest thing about me is not my sexuality but how I understand people and their motivations. I'm an apologist. I often come to the defense of people whose outlooks on life are controversial or disagreeable to mine. Growing up in rural Kentucky I knew people who hated fags. I could have easily shut them out of my life and classified them as ill-minded bigots. I didn't though. I saw that they held values, feelings, and emotions that were good as well. I see humanizing commonalities in people I disagree with first and foremost, and then I consider how aspects of their lives shaped how they act. In this political and societal climate, I find that to be very queer.
How have your notions of sexuality changed since starting the project six years ago?
My notions of sexuality have not changed, but my notions of intimacy have. I'm less quick to judge intimacy as sex. When I see male intimacy I do not necessarily assume there is a sexual component within it. This association is something I find problematic in western culture. If we see men holding hands, hugging, being intimate, we often label it as 'gay'. Which we often desire it to be. If we as a culture weren't so quick to assume this, I could see a more progressive outlook on masculinity taking place.
What was the first photo you remember taking that you were proud of?
When I was thirteen, I made a stop-motion video of biscuits dancing and uploaded it to YouTube. It got a few thousand views. I was so excited to see people watching and subscribing to my channel because of my biscuit video. I felt I owed it to my subscribers to keep making content so I vlogged, made Sims 2 music videos, and stop-motion videos with Legos. I was so proud of myself.
How does your own identity filter into your work?
Do you think of wrestling when you think of me? Sometimes people will see a photograph or drawing of wrestling and think to share it with me. I assume it’s because they think it’s a part of who I am now: an artist who works with wrestling. A wrestling artist.
I’m not sure anymore, I don’t identify as a wrestler, and I don’t identify as an artist either, really. I identify as someone whose impassioned by the history of humanness. The sport of wrestling holds culturally and socially significant subtexts—such as power, athleticism, history, and desire. A window into what it is to be human. My artistic exploration and obsession with this sport throughout history demonstrates a natural obsession with these subtexts. I think my artwork is a representation of all of our fantasies, obsessions, intrigues, and desires.
My work stands as a part of a larger body that chronicles the human fascination with the athletic form. However, my use of artwork extends this conversation by intentionally framing our perspective. In doing so, our impressions, responses, and desires become inseparable from the subjects in the artwork.
How did you go about photographing the Turkish wrestlers? Did you talk to them?
There’s an active consent happening in the photographs and between the wrestlers and myself. Some wrestlers asked to be photographed, some wrestlers posed, and some wrestlers I asked. This is an intimate event in scale and I stuck out as a fully-clothed photographer with several large lenses running around small spaces. There isn't one photograph made where the subjects weren't aware of my presence.
The wrestlers become inoculated by photographers each year and so there is an expectation and behavior learned from the repeated process of that. I learned Turkish for the event, but just basics, and specifically consent questions, like "can I take your photograph” or “can you pose.”
The oil wrestling work reminds me of images of Naval Academy’s Herndon Monument Climb. Have you seen those photos? What do you think of them?
The event is spectacular; it’s one of the best performances I've ever seen in my life. I've gone every year since I've learned about it since it's only an hour away. The big band playing, the men and women supporting each other in the climb, the parents and family watching—all in front of the navel academies church.
Do you think there's a certain level of physical expression in wrestling that allows for "straight" guys to adhere to masculinity? How does your work tackle that?
I find wrestlers often express alternative views of masculinity. Yes, they uphold many ideas of what it means to be masculine, but they also operate outside of the confines of physicality that traditional masculinity in the west adheres to.
Wrestlers are a part of a community filled with supportive relationships. They aren't afraid to hug each other, or comfort each other physically in public and private. I imagine it would be hard to find the same level of physical intimacy in other traditionally very masculine spaces and communities.