Turkish delight – Glass talks to photo-artist Jamie McLeod as he returns with a new show, Ottoman Fight Club, in London

Following his 2010 show, Jack Off Johnny, the photo-artist Jamie Mcleod returns to the Dalston Superstore, London, this month with a new exhibition, portraits of Turkish oil wrestlers, entitled Ottoman Fight Club. Well-known for his bold brave graphic images and pop portraits of a diverse range of subjects – most notably his extensive collaboration with torch-singing legend Marc Almond, Mcleod is now focusing his lens on some intriguing, and hitherto, unexplored topics.

Taken over an eight-year period at the Kirkpinar wrestling tournament in Turkey, Ottoman Fight Club was shot in black and white, and screen-printed in a panoramic style, giving the appearance of a Pasolini movie still. However Mcleod’s images of the wrestlers are not mere homo-erotic fantasy, in the vein, perhaps, of Bruce Weber, but an in-depth and fascinating study of Turkish ethnicity and male sexuality as expressed through the body.

Born in New Zealand, but now based in London, Mcleod says what he loves about these images is that it is not possible to discern what era they were taken – they look as if they could have been taken anytime in the last 100 years. He is also enchanted by how brutal and beautiful they are – with their cast of non-classical semi-nudes captured like the warriors and heroes that he believes them to be. Anybody familiar with the photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden’s 1930s photos of Sicilian youth will find a direct link to the savage male beauty that is Mcleod’s subject.

“I’m interested in the male physique but more the face, and eyes,” Mcleod says. “In Turkey you find the classic Arabic-type face, with also Ottoman, Asiatic, Kurdish, Gypsy, Greek, Roman, Jewish and Georgian-type faces – all of which encompass the country’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.”

Turkish wrestlers. Photograph: Jamie McleodTurkish wrestlers. Photograph: Jamie Mcleod

Can you tell me something about your photographic career? What have been the high and the low points?
There have been no highs, only lows, and it is only getting lower as we speak. The highlights have been working with people at the drop of a hat that I respected and they took me on because they like something about me and allowed me into their life to get to know them. A lot of these people were highly respected with a big following and I was an unknown commodity. However they trusted me and I love them for this. I work best when I have a rapport with my subject and I cajole them and play with them and push them to their limits.

I’m not interested in mediocre imagery. I want emotion and I want pure drama without being a soap opera and to make images that punch you in the chest. I don’t do nice and plastic fantastic. I don’t use high class technology to woo you and so the viewer thinks this guy is really Hollywood big budget because I am not. I  am very low, low fidelity and basic because my images are not about the sheen and gloss.

They are about the meaning. I always aspire to make a mini-movie through a still image so it looks like it came from a movie and it has a story. And if I achieve this I am very happy. Someone once called me the David Bailey of trash and it rang true – not because I like him because I don’t  – but it seemed right to me and I was proud of this comparison.

What or who inspires you? What led you to becoming a photographer?
I always think visually, so taking pictures is only a language to express myself and my ideas and fantasies and, of course, reality with – that is my reality, maybe not other people’s reality or unreality. Inspiration will always come from my imagination and dreams and obviously books and cinema and rock n’ roll and poetry. I never really look at other photographers as I am not that interested – however filmmakers like Alejandro Jodorowsky and Sergei Parajanov are just Gods to me. And of course Kenneth Anger.

Turkish wrestlers. Photograph: Jamie McleodTurkish wrestlers. Photograph: Jamie Mcleod

How did you find out about this Turkish wrestling competition?
I saw a postcard somewhere in Paris and I thought it was a fashion shoot of rough boys in leather biker trousers for a Versace advert. Then I looked more closely and I realised they were not classically sculptured boys but unclassical beauties with buff bodies – they had the look that got me hooked, a hidden surprise embedded in their eyes.

Do many westerners attend the competition?
Yes, these days, more and more, as the publicity around this sport is growing. I would say in the old days, when I first went in 1999, there were about only 15 foreign photographers. And now it’s probably over 100 with international TV stations etc and journalists. It has even been written about in Easyjet’s inflight magazine and been on British television in the series Shameless. But it is still a hidden treasure and I was the first person in the UK to bring it to the public’s attention, in my small way, through exhibitions and being in a few magazines. I have been told I have the best images of the wrestling by a lot of people and, yes, I am blowing my own trumpet.

Turkish wrestlers. Photograph: Jamie McleodTurkish wrestlers. Photograph: Jamie Mcleod

Why did you want to document the wrestlers at the Kirkpinar tournament, take photographs of it? What was it about it that inspired you? What is it about the tournament that fascinates you?
The brawn, the muscles, the faces, the highly sexual movements, the spiritual aspect of fighting to become one with God. The discipline and the metaphor of the fight which represents all of our struggles in life to conquer and to succeed and to use our mental focus to win and overcome all adversity.

How does this project fit relate to your early work, if at all?
My work is a potpourri of all my obsessions and addictions. So this imagery is right on par with my prostitute Turkish transsexuals, Mexican wrestlers, Marc Almond, punk rock, pin ups, classic portraits, street imagery of signs and icons and Dandies. I call all of this “punks, pimps, drags on junk, geeks, freaks and strange girls”. Or into my performance whore sub-category which is basically images of performers that whore themselves for money and fame.

Were the wrestlers happy to be photographed by you, or not?
The young wrestlers are like young narcissus flowers. They are at their physical peak and they radiate youth and beauty and are not cynical and jaded around being admired – some of the older wrestlers don’t want to pose and be admired for whatever reasons – in fact most of them love to be admired and adored through my lens. But I have a great way of playing with them as I am a funny guy and like to joke around. So I can disarm them and be their friend because I like them and can relate to them. I arm-wrestle them and hang out after the matches and so on. I have got to know and see a lot of them grow up. I have tried to take photos to give them the following year I return as some kind of reciprocal payment for giving me these images.

Have the wrestlers seen your photographs of them?
Some of them have. But each season is different and I would say 40 per cent have moved on and don’t come back to the Kirkpinar festival or I missed seeing them. I was chosen above any Turkish photographer to be featured in the only Turkish photo reportage magazine called Genis Aci (which means “night sun” ) and some of them saw this and were very excited. However a lot of them couldn’t buy this mag as it was only available in Istanbul.

If so, what was their reaction?
They love to have a copy of their photo.

Turkish wrestlers. Photograph: Jamie McleodTurkish wrestlers. Photograph: Jamie Mcleod

Would you like this project to become a book? How do you see it developing?
Yes, of course. I dream of working with a publisher to make a book on this subject as I have seen so many people’s work and I have a really great bag of work, comparatively, that other photographers do not have. I went to the wrestling tournament for about six years and shot a very different perspective to the classic reportage style of  the photographers documenting the games. I documented the faces and poses and the relationship to one another in spaces that look like it could have been a studio. I wanted to bring out their glory and physical prowess away from the confusion and that is what I achieved. I also shot them amongst the mayhem of the games in the stands and washing and fighting.

What is your next project?
My next project is a mixed show of my disparate subjects tentatively called Dandies, Punks, Pimps, Drags, Freaks, Geeks and Strange girls. Another one will be called Dead Behind the Eyes based on some of my favourite performers.

By Caroline Simpson

Jamie Mcleod’s Ottoman Fight Club will be at Dalston Superstore, Kingsland Road, Dalston, London from January 12 until February 29. The private view takes place on Thursday, January 12.

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Editor-in-chief Glass Magazine

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