The photographer talks Alex Jackson through his latest trip into the world of folk wrestling – to Iceland, and the Glima King
“I love the mix of heritage, costume and youth in photography; not high fashion but a sort of fashion for the ordinary person,” explains David Ellison. “When I began studying photography, I wanted to be a fashion photographer but realised, after assisting Craig McDean in New York, that I wouldn’t be able to dedicate myself solely to that sort of fashion photography. I wanted to mix my sense of style with another interest like documenting the ordinary person. I suppose my last few projects are about ‘vernacular fashion’.”
For David that ordinary person, that “vernacular fashion”, has been found in his long-standing research into styles of traditional folk wrestling – Specifically, with those with a common Celtic heritage – and, often, the garb the participants wear to compete is as much the focus of David’s work as the wrestlers or the landscapes themselves.
Glima is his latest project and the name for the Icelandic version of a sport – a direct progression from his North West based TEK HOD series, which focused on his interest in the faces and fields of Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling. “I want to see how far it can go by exploring variations of the Celtic wrestling tradition in Northern, Western and Southern Europe,” explains David. “Vernacular costume will also become one focus of study for a PhD which I begin at the University of Ulster in October.”
Still practised in Iceland, hundreds of years since it originated, Glima Wrestling has become the country’s national sport. “Wrestlers wear a leather harness which they use to grip onto their opponent,” explains David. “Once they get a firm hold, they sway backwards and forwards, simulating the beginning of a ‘dance’. Whilst this is to gather momentum so that they can lift and lower the opponent to the ground, it’s also very beautiful to watch, almost balletic,” he says. This Spring, Iceland hosted the 2013 European Championships of the International Federation of Celtic Wrestling and after writing to former Icelandic wrestler, Olafur Oddur Sigurosson – who was organising this year’s event – David was invited over “as the ‘official photographer,'” he says. Iceland is such a remarkable place ‐ the isolation, the purity of the landscape and the eccentricity of the people and culture struck me and inspired me throughout the trip.” The subjects that David shot while in the land of fire and ice are in fact the national Icelandic Glima wrestling team. “They’re the best in their category and wear the national kit,” explains David. “They’re young wrestlers, representing the next generation of the sport. The best male wrestler is called the ‘Glima King’, which I was rather excited about. I didn’t hear anything mentioned about a ‘Glima Queen’ and whether they’re both robed and actually crowned! I hope so, because I’d love to photograph it. Can you imagine how magical that image would be?”