Interview: Samuel Wilson

Samuel Wilson is a curious documentary photographer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He graduated with a B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 2013. Although wary of objective truth, Samuel looks for moments and experiences in specific communities that might be understood and felt universally. A good new year’s resolution for him would be to move slower and more deliberately. His work has appeared in places.

Who Sucks Now

I was never interested in professional wrestling until I watched it at the North Portland Eagle’s Hall in 2016, and the first time I saw a person slam another person’s face into a folding table they swiveled a ghoulish grin around the audience and screamed, “WHO SUCKS NOW!?!”

The crowd responded on cue and in unison “YOU DO!”, pointing fingers like bayonets at the man still standing, wearing only tall boots and sparkling briefs. His opponent’s head lay still unmoving among popcorn scattered on the table. It was as if the wrestlers and the crowd were in on a secret, and the secret wasn’t that pro wrestling is fake. It’s that its real.

*In-person (conveniently recording right next to this café’s kitchen) holding a printed promo for his project Who Sucks Now*

How many of these promos did you print?

I printed out a hundred and I sent out over fifty or so.

This cover. I love the Who Sucks Now with multiple fingers pointing at this person. What’s the story behind this picture?

This is actually one of the owners. She sort of sat off in the corner, everybody knows her, her name is Patty, and rarely if some shenanigans go on in the ring she’ll grab the mic and try to calm everybody down. But, of course, they have to keep (the act) going so that’s really what happened here.

Oh so she’s basically telling them to chill, the hands pointing at her belong to the wrestlers, and they’re still just playing into the narrative of it.

Yeah. Telling her off.

That’s fantastic. Well, thanks for doing this and meeting me here. How did you get into wrestling to begin with? Were you always a fan or is your perspective more of an outsider looking in?

It was definitely something I didn’t understand my whole life growing up, and never really tried to and then I stumbled upon a match I think it was Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant in 1980. What really struck me in it was the storytelling. I saw that storytelling for the first time, as well as the sincerity in it, and it sort of transcended the argument of is it real or not? And then a friend of a friend was going to a show one night, I just happened to be there, so we all went together.

What was it like building trust with this wrestling community? Was it an environment in which, because it was so fluent in performance and entertainment, once someone came in with a camera and a flash they were okay with it?

I mean it got to that point relatively quickly, but they weren’t really keen on having someone hang out backstage with a camera because they’re trying to maintain this sense of conflict, and they’re all hanging out together in the back.

So it brakes down the 4th wall for the narrative that they’re building.

Yeah.

A lot of other projects you’ve done are glimpses into different cultures or communities of people.

I feel like I’ve always been a really shy person and I think there’s something about the camera giving you…I don’t want to say a license because that would mean you could do whatever you want but…an honest curiosity that people respond to.

Based on what your portfolio looks like you’ve done a really good job of it. Who Sucks Now kind of has the feel of being photographed over the course of one night. How long did it take?

Probably closer to fifteen shows, that I actually photographed.

And each time, were people more and more willing to work with you as you saw the same faces again?

Yeah, very much a recurring cast. Those are stories that are being told again and again, and developed over time, which was important for me to see so I could understand what these people are doing on a longer scale. That’s kind of cool you sort of imagined it was one day though because when I look at the pictures I have the same feelings that I did when I walked in that first time, and felt over the course of the show.

Maybe that’s what makes it feel like it’s one night to me, there’s nothing that signifies change of day. You’re in the same building, it’s the same people, and you’re making the pictures in a similar way each time…so it almost has this consistency that makes it feel like this one absurdly action-packed evening of pro wrestling.

I mean when I was shooting it I did spend time at some of the wrestlers houses. Some of them take the Max (bus) all the way from Gresham every Sunday and then get back at midnight or something. So I did try to play with expanding the world a little bit but I think it was a little stronger and more concise like this.

Stylistically, with the flash, it’s a departure from a lot of your other work.

For me the style is kind of like a graphic novel and I think it inspires a lot of the wrestlers’ stories, in the superhero style.

Sure, you’re definitely looking at the people in this with admiration and curiosity at the same time. I went to a friend’s house once while a bunch of people were watching WWE and they explained it and walked me through it, and then it made sense to me. I don’t watch it. But it made sense. Did you have that moment?

I think that sort of happened when I watched the YouTube video (Hogan and Andre). I was interested in the difference between real and fake truth and how we interpret different things. There’s that idea that what you see as being real isn’t necessarily what another person sees as real, and I definitely spent a lot of time thinking about that. A lot of the fake news and the ideas that are out there about people having different truths- I think that conversation was going through my mind the whole time.

This picture with the ladder, did you see this ladder get thrown?

Dude yeah actually these pictures are related- this guy over here got thrown on it and that point scraped up his back.

Oh, and that’s why she’s bandaging him up backstage.

Yeah, it was a huge gash.

These guys really get hurt.

And again that’s part of the real versus fake conversation

There have been times…holy shit. I saw this kid getting carried out and I was like I can’t take pictures of this, then I went to the back and they were all hootin’ and hollerin’ and shaking hands (with him) and I was like what the fuck I was there right next to him.

You thought he was legit in bad shape…

Like a life-threatening event. It was crazy. But they do get hurt. It was actually this kid with the bleeding face and the crowd behind him (pictured above). He’s going places, for sure. He’s a cool kid. I think he was like seventeen when I started shooting this.

Young. Young to be out there with those grown adults getting properly injured.

He convinced me he broke his spine.

Are these judges, or just spectators behind him in the picture?

Spectators. The Spectators are a whole different element to the show

How involved do they get?

Pretty involved. It’s a thing I like about wrestling. It’s very theatrical but it’s also democratic theater where the audience is participating and can lead the direction of where things are moving in a way. So the audience, the owners and the wrestlers are all sort of working together to create the show. I think that’s why a lot of the audience really keeps coming back every single Sunday. They get to take part in a way. More so than just going to a play or something like that.

You published this thing with The Portland Monthly, which is how I found it before I reached out. Did you shoot it first, then reach out?

I had been shooting for a couple months, then I pitched it, and after they picked it up I slowed down but kept working on it until they were ready to put it together.

I’m curious about your portfolio. To me it’s pretty varied, and
I really love that I can’t tell what your hobbies are and what’s brand new for you.
For instance, the climbing images…you’d clearly have to know how to climb to take those. How terrifying were those to make?

Well, the climbing photography is a little different because it’s not like I’m pursuing the climbing photography, but more so that I’m just climbing and then I’m taking pictures along the way. The picture part isn’t the scary part. As you keep going up you get more used to where you’re at.

I have a fear of heights so it’s tough for me to even look at those pictures. I also find it disorienting if I even have to stand on a chair and look through a viewfinder.

I’ve always had a fear of heights too, but I think after climbing awhile I understood how my body balanced. (To shoot) You just strap down and hang onto a rock or something.

It sounds like a lot of your work involves taking your fears head-on. You’re shy and afraid of heights but you connect with different communities of people and climb mountains. Would you say that’s true?

I wouldn’t argue with that necessarily. But I would say if that’s the case then what pushes me to overcome the shyness or climbing is just curiosity and I think that’s a huge motivator for me, whether it’s geographic or socially.

Thanks for doing this man. I really appreciate it.

Thank you.

To view more of Samuel Wilson’s work please visit his website.



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