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Jamie McLeod's Ottoman Fight Club

How an overactive imagination and an interest for the drama of life led the photographer to explore an ancient subculture and befriend a group of Turkish wrestlers

Photographer Jamie McLeod opens his new exhibition, ‘Ottoman Fight Club’ at Dalston Superstore this week. In the show, he presents powerful large-scale black and white portraits of Turkish wrestlers. Focusing on the drama and high emotions of the sport, McLeod has aimed to portray the fighters as warriors, to celebrate this ancient part of Turkish culture and its traditions.

The photographer immersed himself in the subculture befriending the wrestlers and following them in order to produce images that are personal and unique. They highlight the ingrained closeness the fighters have with each other, the brotherly love and same-sex intimacy that McLeod feels the West finds hard to emulate without being labelled ‘homosexual’. Here McLeod explains how the act of fighting has more depth and delicacy than he first thought and how the curation of this exhibition was particularly important to him. 

Dazed Digital: What made you want to photograph the Turkish wrestlers? Why that particular part of Turkish culture?
Jamie McLeod:
I've always been obsessed with wrestling since I was a kid. And I'm interested in all things Turkish and Middle Eastern especially the way people interact and how direct, tactile and friendly the Turks are. I’m interested in hyper masculinity that crosses into femininity of the male or female and the pure spectacle of the fight which is the closest living sport related to the gladiators of Rome. This is pure and with rules and it has a ceremonial and spiritual side harking way back to when the Ottomans were preparing for war, to protect their country and to conquer others.

DD: What inspires your work? How do approach a new project when you get an idea?
Jamie McLeod:
My inspiration comes from too many places but mainly just from the drama of life and having an overactive imagination. Without sounding pretentious I sometimes get "divine" inspiration and it comes to me like lightening quite often when I am doing something mundane.

DD: How has the curation of your new exhibition echoed the story occurring in the photographs?
Jamie McLeod:
The SuperStore space is very specific so I have had to make a whole new piece edited from hundreds of pictures that we thought would be the most powerful. This show has been more about how to present the pictures for this space and to make them billboard size and bombastic. It’s a 12 metre ream of canvas along the main wall with photographic prints on the smaller wall printed analogue style from negatives by hand on proper photographic paper. There will also be a poster wall, a lightbox and projections.

DD: Your images in the show are of the fighters before and after they fought, what was the reason for this?
Jamie McLeod:
For me it was far more interesting to take portraits identifying the faces and bodies and their relationship to one another. Where I came from I never saw these Ottoman/Arabic faces I had only seen them in movies, they were mythological beings from the bible and Arabia. Because of my rapport with the guys and hanging out with them I got to work with them in the thoroughfare with white walls so I could separate them from the  mayhem scenario and just get right into their body language, their stance and drama and make them shine.

DD: What was it like meeting the fighters? Did you learn anything from them while you were there?
Jamie McLeod:
It was amazing because they were very excited to hang out with me and to pose for me and to look after me. I learnt that the "fight" is as much mental as physical and concentrating your mental energy, being totally singular with your target and to never give up helps you to win. I also learnt that the Turks are a strong and proud race of people with superb hospitality and a rich culture. They also have a brutal side to their history but are also highly sophisticated in ways that we aren’t in the West. They look after each other.

DD: What's next for you?
Jamie McLeod:
There will be a new show coming soon called ‘Punks, Pimps, Cunts, Geeks, Freaks and Drags’. There will be one after this generated photographically but painted of Iconic performers called ‘Dead Behind the Eyes’. And hopefully a book on the Turkish wrestlers.

‘Ottoman Fight Club’, 12 January- 29 February, Dalston Superstore, 117 Kingsland High Street, London E8 2PB