Art & Photography

A Thousand Words: David Ellison

The photographer on how the embroidered outfits of Cumberland & Westmorland wrestlers decode Britain’s rural and cultural intricacies Photographed in a field in Grasmere, Cumbria, this image was one of the first photographs I took in the series. This guy came from Frizington, West Cumbria, his look is just so striking – a really wild face from the Cumbrian west coast.

Over the years I’ve built this work into a big series of photographs: TEK HOD-Faces. I took long bus journeys from London to West Cumbria to visit wrestling events, usually at weekends, pitching a studio tent in the hope of photographing some of the wrestlers.

The spectacle of them wearing what is essentially Victorian dress, re-appropriated, struck me immediately. The intricate embroidery reflects each wrestler’s heritage and ancestry, depicting rural life (farm animals, cattle, breeds of sheep, exotic pets) – storytelling through embroidered costume.

The costumes are all hand-made, normally by the mother, girlfriend, or wife of the wrestler. They wear a combination of vest, long-johns and velvet trunks, called a centre-piece and the really vintage vests are incredible. I even did a talk in Amsterdam, to raise money for my work, at a photo festival last year wearing a costume made by a wrestler called Richard Dixon, with a beautiful kingfisher on the front and back.

The wrestling events themselves occasionally take place on former industrial land, a scene both incongruous and unbefitting to the lie of the land. I was very much interested in getting a regional look – a sense of the rural landscape – and the wrestlers’ costumes were a vehicle via which I could explore the complex nature of their cultural landscape.

Traditional Cumberland & Westmorland wrestler shot by David Ellison
Traditional Cumberland & Westmorland wrestler shot by David Ellison