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The Lion and the Lamb by Ashley Markle wrestling
The Lion and the LambPhotography Ashley Markle

In pictures: the raw, intensely physical world of college wrestling

In her new series The Lion and the Lamb, photographer Ashley Markle documents the young men coming of age in Colombia University’s wrestling ring

A lot of the wrestling that’s portrayed in TV and film can feel like a caricature of traditional masculinity. Centred around muscled men taunting their opponents, desperate to win, their macho performances are often for a show. But in Ashley Markle’s photo series, the real-life art of wrestling is much more nuanced, focused on athletic finesse and quiet, calculated movement. “I think wrestling and sports, in general, give men a bad rep for portraying toxic masculinity or ‘bro-y’ behaviour, when they actually have to be comfortable showing a wide range of emotions and relying on each other to make it through tough times,” Markle tells Dazed. She’s been photographing the Columbia University wrestling team for months now, and she’s already witnessed several wrestlers break down in tears, relying on their teammates to bring them back up.

In The Lion and the Lamb, Markle photographs the art of grappling, the hours of training, and the good-natured bonding within the tight-knit brotherhood of the college wrestling team. “I like to pose and position people, or focus on small gestures that tell a larger emotional story,” says the Ohio-born photographer. “[These men are] fighting each other for hours a day, but are still teammates.”

Everything about the photo series is new territory to Markle, from photographing a sports team to understanding how wrestling works. “This project is definitely not for the faint of heart,” she continues. “I spend most of my time photographing practice, and the wrestling room is pretty small considering there are around 40 boys on the team. I used to shoot with one eye closed, and one eye in the viewfinder, but now I have to keep both eyes open in case a pair of wrestlers are about to plough into me.”

Markle’s role as an observer takes a more involved route. Armed with her camera, she wades through a sea of fighting men, documenting the mental and physical energy at play and the rhythmic, graceful motions of the wrestlers. Young men stretch their bodies, tumble like gymnasts around the mat, and test out their wrestling takedowns or defences. Flashes of pain, relief, worry, exhaustion or audacity cross their faces.

Out of the practice room, Markle also turns her lens to the lighthearted banter that’s often pocketed during the practice and match. “They’re young and still trying to find their identities, but wrestling seems to have already made them into men,” she says. “I want to focus on the moments I see of them exhibiting their boyhood while at the same time, being expected to act and perform as men.”

There are also the diverse backgrounds of the wrestlers, which Markle hopes to showcase in her work: “I didn’t realise how socioeconomically diverse the team was. Some boys are from wealthy New York families, which you would expect in an Ivy League environment, but some are from very low-income families in the Midwest. Yet they all treat each other equally. I am still finding ways to showcase all of these unique facets of the team in my photos.”

There’s a contrast on display in the Columbia University wrestling team. On one hand, these are young men who put in hard work, braving intense physical and mental exhaustion to grasp the art of wrestling. On the other, they are men in their formative years, joyfully coming of age in the college environment. In Markle’s photo series, any stereotypes surrounding what is expected from a young wrestler are blurred and buried.

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